Saturday, July 10, 2010

In the Company of Heroes

I recently returned from a week in the company of heroes; of men who answered the call of their country and went to war in Vietnam behind the controls of a helicopter. War correspondent Joe Galloway called us "God's own lunatics", and, whatever we flew, "God's own lunatics" is a label in which we continue to take considerable pride. Those who flew the Light Observation Helicopter (LOH or "Loach") had the mission of flying low and slow to observe the enemy and mark targets. The rest of us joked that our target would be marked by a burning loach. We didn't need to be convinced that deliberately trying to draw fire was insane. We knew it . Those who flew the UH-1 Huey, or Slick were workhorses. Slicks hauled the infantry into and out of the fight, often landing under fire to deliver reinforcements, food, water, and ammunition; to carry the wounded to aid; and to bring the dead home. When they were called, they came. Where LOH pilots were high spirited and exuberant, Slick drivers were more subdued and business like. The heavy lifters who flew Chinooks and Sky Cranes didn't get enough respect. They just showed up and did their job of moving heavy objects, relocating artillery and resupplying firebases day in and day out every day, faithfully maintaining their part of the supply chain. LOH drivers had callsigns like "Scalp Hunter"; slick drivers had call signs like "Robin Hood", "Crusader", and "Gladiator". Heavy Lifters carried call signs like "Playtex", "Pachyderm", and "Big Windy". Then, there are the gunship pilots. Gunship pilots had call signs like "Bucaneer", "Joker", "Cougar", and "Panther". Gunship pilots directly engaged the enemy and, whether they flew Bravo models, Charlie models or the AH-1G Cobra, always knew themselves to be members of the elite. Gunships covered and protected loaches, performed airmobile escort, and provided fire support; those who flew them knew they were special. As my friend Mike takes pride in saying "Three kinds of people flew helicopters in Vietnam -- those who were Panthers, those who were covered by the Panthers, and those who wish to God they were one of the other two!" Every year, when I attend the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots' reunion, I leave with a deep sense of appreciation and honor to be numbered as a member of this company of heroes. Someone once asked if I was a real hero. "No", I replied. "But I've drunk beer with a lot of people who are." Most of my Vietnam Helicopter Pilot friends would say the same.