A Dust Off pilot remembers

The trigger
An intriguing chain of events began with a story titled “The Postcard,” by Rocky Bleier (with David Eberhart) in the 2001 edition of “Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul.” It caught my attention as I was browsing through displays in a local bookstore in Lincoln, Nebraska. As I glanced at the first paragraph, the words “Hiep Duc, in the Que Son Valley,” and “August 20, 1969,” stopped me in my tracks. Instantly, these words brought back 31-year-old memories of danger, darkness and death.

On 20 August 1969, I was a U.S. Army captain assigned to the 236th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Am-bulance) in Da Nang, South Viet Nam as operations officer and a medical evacuation pilot. Our mission en-tailed evacuating wounded and dead Americans, South Korean, South Vietnamese, Australian allies, Vietnamese civilians and, often, enemy soldiers to aid stations and hospitals in our 5,000-square-mile operational area.

From 20-22 August, I had assigned myself as copilot to a field-site crew of four at Landing Zone (LZ) Baldy, approximately 25 miles south of Da Nang. Warrant Officer 1 William A. (Wild Bill) Statt was the aircraft commander, SP5 John N. Seebeth was our medic and SP5 Paul L. Sumrall was the crew chief. I’d barely been in Viet Nam a month, and in our unit for two weeks as a rookie pilot.

What we weren’t aware of was that we were about to be shoved into the middle of a major battle involving four regiments of the U.S. Army’s 196th Light Infantry Brigade, two battalions of the U.S. 7th Marines and batteries of the U.S. 82nd Artillery that provided fire support from four firebases. These Americans were fac-ing 1,500 Communist troops.*

Insecure missions
In those 2 1/2 days of devastating action, our crew evacuated 150 wounded Americans from the Que Son Val-ley on 42 missions, 15 of which were “insecure.” This meant that our ground troops couldn’t guarantee the safety of the LZ because the enemy was in contact and too close, or friendlies were low on ammunition and couldn’t provide appropriate covering fire. On a majority of these insecure missions, helicopter gunships were unavailable to cover our unarmed aircraft because there was too much action requiring their services in other parts of this battleground. So our only alternative was to take our chances and go in alone because most of the wounded wouldn’t have survived if we waited for gunships to arrive.

During late morning of 21 August, our UH-1H (Huey) was shot up by enemy AK-47 rifle fire while exiting another insecure LZ. One of our three patients was wounded for the second time. A burst of enemy fire ripped into a can of oil our crew chief kept under my armored seat, spraying it over my Nomex fire-retardant flight pants. Another round locked me in my shoulder harness when it clipped a wire on the unlocking device attached to the left side of my seat. After depositing our patients at the battalion aid station at LZ Baldy, a replacement bird and a different crew chief were flown down from Phu Bai (a medevac unit north of Da Nang) for our use.

Less than 24 hours later, we were shot up for the second time on another insecure mission. This one involved evacuating an infantry staff sergeant who’d been shot in the back. Seebeth was wounded in the throat as we made our hot-and-hairy tactical approach into the LZ. An AK-47 round tore out his larynx before we’d even landed. As we exited the LZ with our original patient, who’d been literally thrown aboard by two of his comrades under heavy enemy fire, two of our three radios were also shot out.

In the aid station at LZ Baldy, Seebeth kept mouthing the words, “I can’t breathe” as he kicked his legs in frustration. I held his legs and attempted to calm him while Captain George Waters, M.D., performed a tracheotomy without anesthesia. The wound had swollen so fast that it was cutting off his oxygen. Time couldn’t be wasted being concerned about alleviating his pain. Doc Waters immediately initiated an incision. Mercifully, Seebeth quickly lapsed from shock into unconsciousness.

John survived, but endured 12 follow-up operations since then… one of which gave him back a voice. But it’s not the same voice we’d known and grown to love as he provided emergency medical care to thousands of his patients; instead his voice is produced by a plastic Montgomery T-tube that’s inserted into his tracheotomy opening and, when he wants to talk, he must plug an opening on one end with a finger to force air through his mouth.

Crossing paths

Since that first paragraph of Rocky Bleier’s story in 2001 had caught my attention, I decided to do some re-search. I’d heard that Bleier had written an autobiography, “Fighting Back” (with Terry O’Neil). In it, he’d written about his early life, the fact that he’d been drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968 and details concerning his subsequent service in Viet Nam in 1969 where he was severely wounded in both legs. He also provided an inspiring story of how he overcame his wounds and recovered the use of his right foot, which doctors had at one point thought would have to be amputated. This ultimately led to Bleier being a part of four winning National Football League (NFL) Super Bowls as a starting running back with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979.

Both the 1975 and revised/updated 1995 editions of Bleier’s autobiography were out of print, so I contacted an out-of-print book dealer who was able to acquire a copy of the 1975 edition. I sat down to read the entire book as soon as it arrived in 2002.

Before beginning the first chapter, I glanced at the contents and Chapter 7, titled “August 20, 1969,” quickly caught my eye. This is when things became interesting and nearly unbelievable.

On 20 August, Bleier was an M-79 grenadier with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division. He was wounded twice on that Wednesday near Million Dollar Hill (which gained its name and fame because a million dollars worth of American helicopters were shot down there in one day) that was located east of the infamous village of Hiep Duc. His book described in detail how a “Dust Off” medevac helicopter had pre-viously completed two missions to their location that night evacuating other wounded Company C members. Bleier was next to the last patient crammed into the cargo compartment on this third and final flight to be evacuated to LZ Baldy at 0200 on 21 August. That’s when it hit me.

I went to my military files and pulled out my combat flight records. Then I retrieved a citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross that our entire crew had been awarded for those traumatic 2 1/2 days. Everything fit. Our unit’s lone field-site was at LZ Baldy and I only assigned one flight crew there at a time. Hiep Duc and Million Dollar Hill were in our area of operations. That’s when I recalled our crew landing on the same hilltop three times in one night during that period of time. We were obviously the crew that had evacuated Bleier and his other wounded infantry comrades from that ambush site during this chaotic night.

Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world (and also combat) breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Perhaps this is what happened to Rocky Bleier, our flight crew and so many others in Viet Nam. Adversity has a way of introducing you to yourself.

Empathy & guilt
As soldiers, especially medevac crews, doctors, nurses and medics, we were all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers… and still are to this day on different battlefronts. It was a fact that many of our brothers needed evacuation and immediate medical care during that horrific August 1969 night on Million Dollar Hill in Viet Nam. I’ll always be grateful that our crew was there and able to assist those courageous American warriors.

On this Memorial Day, I’m again reminded of how war changes veterans’ lives forever in painful ways. Those who’ve experienced combat’s physical and psychological pressure cooker know it can be like swimming with piranhas, great white sharks and moray eels in a sea of blood. Surviving in such an atmosphere is often as easy as attempting to perform disappearing magic tricks in front of a firing squad.

When we veterans returned home, and so many of our friends and comrades didn’t, nagging doubts had the ability to creep into our minds about whether we really accomplished everything that we could have done. Survivor’s guilt can overwhelm a combat veteran with an emotional tsunami just because he or she is still alive.

In my own case, I know how it feels to make a judgment error that cost a South Vietnamese lieutenant colonel with seven children his life. My crew could have saved him but, as aircraft commander, I failed to recognize the danger he was in quickly enough. Forget those other 986 missions that ended successfully. That particular incident continues to wend its way through my thoughts almost daily. I finally forgave myself for this personal blunder, many years later, but the survivor’s guilt I internalized for so long etched this mistake deep into my conscience. How quickly and easily war can destroy lives. Just the blink of an eye and their lights are extinguished forever.

A persistent voice in the back of my mind used to whisper a disturbing thought. Why did you survive when so many others didn’t? I don’t know the answer to that question and may never know in this lifetime. That’s one of the reasons I became a writer. I’ve made it a personal goal to ensure that the legacies of courage, duty and dedicated service our military members have provided through over 235 years as a nation don’t die and aren’t swept into the dustbin of history.

Honor

I celebrate my combat survival, and over 27 years of military service on three continents that began at the age of 17, by writing and publishing the truth about the heroism and sacrifices of military personnel that I’ve witnessed. That’s because it’s important to honor all veterans — dead and alive — who’ve served America in time of both war and peace.

Some of our fellow citizens, journalists, college professors and politicians apparently lack understanding about our warrior culture. They often fail to fully appreciate its deep loyalty to comrades, Ramboesque competitive nature, periodic paranoia (generated mostly by reality) and profound sense of service. I feel obligated to help educate them, whenever possible, about this magnificent “band of brothers and sisters.”

A day seldom passes when I don’t recall bloody scenes of young men sprawled on our cargo deck, most whom were barely out of high school, and how they were cut down defending the freedoms of others before their own lives had barely begun. I think of all the milestones they never reached such as graduation from college, marriage, children… and old age with the rest of us. Remembering is a continuous act. I don’t need Memorial Day to remind me. Every day is Memorial Day in my world.

August 20, 1969 was merely another dangerous and dramatic day for so many in our country’s history of sacrifice and service on behalf of others. But it taught me an important lesson. We never know whom our actions might impact in this life or who might touch and influence us in return. And each time Memorial Day rolls around, we can benefit ourselves and others by celebrating, acknowledging and never forgetting those who gave — and are still giving — their all in the fight for freedom around this planet. We forget their strength, courage and dedication at our nation’s peril. Honoring their memories, missions and meritorious achievements is the least we can do for them, now and forever.

*Nolan, Keith, “Hiep Duc ‘Death Valley,’” VFW, (August 2008), p. 39.