Forgiveness…after 16 years

I had 30 seconds to make a life-or-death decision in April 1970. I made the wrong choice. How can I describe how it feels to know you have caused someone to die — even though you did so mistakenly?

Da Nang, South Viet-Nam

It had been a typical southeast Asian day with the early afternoon sun blazing relentlessly in a cloud-sprinkled sky. I was commander of the 236th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) located at Red Beach, to the northwest of the city on the edge of Da Nang Harbor. Our four-man, “Dust Off” (helicopter medical evacuation) crew had returned from our third urgent evacuation mission in a row, two of which had been accomplished under heavy enemy small arms fire. It had been over three hours of intense action — the kind that makes you a little unstable, even when you survive with no injuries.

As the aircraft commander of our OH-1H (Huey) helicopter, and having been in-country eight months, I was accustomed to scenes of violence that sprouted as spontaneously as mushrooms. Each day and mission was like a foot race with death. Most of the time, death had a head start.

Six times my aircraft had been shot up by enemy fire, and twice I had been shot down during those eight months. Many of our pilots and crewmembers had been seriously wounded. But I had survived. I had flown nearly 800 missions and had helped evacuate over 2,000 patients from both sides of the conflict to that point. Our crew operated in a state of constant alertness and wariness. Often we spent 10 to 12 hours out of 24 in the air, both day and night. We did this in good weather and bad, over all types of terrain and combat action, often without eating or sleeping and sometimes for days at a time.

Our work was physically and emotionally draining. We learned to rely on instinct to keep us alive. We gained a deeper appreciation for prayer. And we quickly learned that war is impersonal and deadly.

Third mission

That day I flew the third mission. Afterward, I hovered back to the revetment area at Red Beach where five of our six helicopters were parked facing picturesque Da Nang Harbor. I landed, rolled back the throttle to “flight idle” and waited while our jet engine cooled for the required two-minute interval before shutting it down. Our four radios were still on preset frequencies and my crew was making small talk on the intercom when I heard traffic on our UHF radio. It was a USMC “Chinook” helicopter dropping paratroopers in a training exercise.

I looked up through my “greenhouse” (a tinted window in the cockpit roof) and saw a contingent of parachutes opening as the soldiers began their descent. Their chutes floated here and there across the beach area. I noticed that one was drifting, or was being maneuvered by the paratrooper, out over the water toward a contingent of small boats in the distance.

“Sir,” my warrant officer copilot said, “maybe we shouldn’t shut down yet. Maybe we should go out and see what’s happening.”

He was a rookie peter pilot, barely in-country a month. I was the unit commander — a veteran of many battles. The heat, tension and long hours had taken a toll on my body. We’d flown late the night before and I knew there would be more action before the day was over.

“No. We need to get something to eat while we can,” I replied. “There’s a lot of action south of here and we’ll be getting more missions before long. Anyway, Marines don’t just dump them out and leave them. It looks like some kind of water-survival training.” With that, I “chopped” the throttle and completed shutting down the aircraft. The last thing I remember seeing was a lone parachute above the water in the area where all of the boats appeared to have congregated.

The following day I discovered that this parachute belonged to a South Vietnamese lieutenant colonel with seven children. He’d drowned. No water-survival training was taking place. The boats I thought were waiting to pick him up were nowhere near where he landed. It had been an optical illusion. The wind had caught his chute and carried him offshore. By just “cranking” on my throttle and flying straight ahead for 30 seconds, I could have had my medic in the water when he hit. We could have saved him.

I’d made a mistake that had cost a man his life. Even though the Marine pilots should have followed the jumpers down to ensure their safety, my decision had cost a wife her husband and seven children their father. Even though I wasn’t airborne qualified, I should have recognized something was amiss… that water and parachutes don’t mix well.

Guilt

My combat service to that point, I felt, consisted of high objectives, expectations and personal standards. I had never turned down a mission because of weather, terrain or enemy action. I’d even volunteered to evacuate wounded enemy soldiers from under the fire of their own people. But in the chaotic theater of war, I was now personally responsible for a man’s death and my self-image deteriorated accordingly. This awareness was personally intolerable. A heavy blanket of guilt hovered over me like a vulture, while the memory and body were still warm.

Seldom did a day go by, during the following 16 years, when my thoughts didn’t return to the scene of that 1970 airborne exercise at Red Beach. Each year that went by seemed to reignite the memory of that unfortunate South Vietnamese officer. The guilt kept returning again and again, like a well-trained homing pigeon.

As a Christian, raised in a minister’s home, I knew God could forgive me for my momentary blunder. But my prayers for forgiveness seemed to be merely empty words. I continued to torture myself and didn’t know what to do about it. I kept this “secret” to myself and continued to pay for it psychologically. The images of that day would consistently return, sometimes clearly, at other times distorted like the crazy-mirror reflections we laugh at in amusement parks. My suffering persisted in silence for years. A torrent of anger and resentment at what I had done built up inside and continued to torment me. After 986 missions where appropriate decisions had been rendered, how could I have made the wrong decision on the 987th that could have been so simple to resolve?

Accepting forgiveness

Early in 1986 I was reading my Bible, during my daily devotions, when this thought came to me: The Bible teaches that God, alone, is infallible. What makes you so special that you think you aren’t capable of making an error in judgment… especially in a combat situation?

I had made a lousy decision during a moment of physical and mental weakness. Yes, it had cost another human being his existence. But God didn’t expect me to carry this self-blame around for the rest of my life, guilt-ridden and inadequate. I remembered the saying, “Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.”

During that moment of self-realization, I gave up this burden. In an instant, tears flooded my eyes. This wasn’t like me. I wasn’t one to show emotion. My guilt and inner turmoil suddenly vanished. I realized at last that no matter how devoted, talented or involved we believe we are, we can’t turn in an Oscar-winning performance every time out. We are all a bit like the centerfielder in baseball. He has nowhere to hide and what happens or comes out into his area is his responsibility. Sometimes the opposition blasts one over his head or the fence. Sometimes he stops the ball in front of his teammates, a national TV audience… and God.

I’d discovered that heartache, pain and mistakes are a part of every person at one time or another. There were many of my ’Nam comrades who had confided to me, in later years, that they’d done things there (not only in the heat of battle) that they were sorry for. But the past is just that — past. The truth is that we’ll never get another opportunity to rectify some of our earlier blunders, so all we can do is move on and do our best not to make the same mistakes again.

It’s true, we learn some of our most important lessons by going through these narrow passages in life. Finally, I yielded my heavy burden to God and He relieved me of my load and gave me the peace I’d sought. The words of Psalm 32:1 (KJV) now had new meaning: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven.”

After 16 years, the war was finally over for me.