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Not long ago, I published a book about my first tour in Vietnam as a combat helicopter pilot. The title of the book is: "THUNDER: Stories From the First Tour." The book covers the period October 1967 to October 1968. I was 24 years old at that time.

Writing about my first tour in Vietnam was never in my plan. The memories and emotions associated with that time in my life were too raw to even look at. I was, however, able to handle writing about the experiences of my second tour in Vietnam, which involved the Easter Offensive and the Battle of Kontum in the spring of 1972. I launched a large website to honor and memorialize those who had fought in that Battle. The website was launched on March 30, 2002, the 30th anniversary of the battle.

It was a very emotional and painful effort for me, and there were many days when my wife would see me reduced to tears as I labored over the story of the Battle of Kontum. It took years for me to be able to face those memories again and write about them. I never felt ready to do that with the first tour memories. Too painful … just too painful.

I believe all of us must confront our ghosts and deal with the pain, no matter what the source of that pain. Easy to say, hard to do. For combat veterans, I think it is essential to their mental and physical health to deal with their war memories. One of the strategies that helped me was to write about it. The writing of the Battle of Kontum website was a healing activity for me — very cathartic, which helped me greatly with the grieving process. Now I have finally arrived at a place that I can write and talk about my first tour experiences. It has been more than 50 years since my 1967-1968 Vietnam tour yet many of the memories are as clear to me as if it all happened just yesterday.

My motivation to write the book was mostly my need to tell the stories and my children’s request to hear the stories. For many years I could do neither. I have found the effort surprising in that the white-hot emotions and storms of my soul have largely subsided, allowing me to be much more objective about those experiences. Because I have retained stacks of my military records over the years, I have had a source to look at for objective evidence, especially on the timing of events, and in some cases, objective "witness" statements that describe specific events.

My purpose for writing the book was to honor all those who served in the Vietnam War in the cause of freedom, both Americans and South Vietnamese. My hope is that their sacrifices will not be forgotten and that those who gave their lives in that noble effort to preserve the freedom of the people of the Republic of South Vietnam will be honored for their ultimate sacrifice.

Memories linked to highly emotional events tend to be more easily recalled than those that were not. Much of my combat time was a period of high emotional engagement for me which has helped with the clarity of my memories, at least for the events where I was washed with intense emotions. Other times are less easy to recall.

No one who hasn't thundered through the skies of Vietnam in a helicopter in combat can know what that experience was like. Most helicopter crews had more than one tour in Vietnam. Most had their aircraft hit by enemy fire many times. Many of us had been shot down at least once. We knew that combat flying in Vietnam was living on the edge all the time. Over the battlefields, you could hear the thunder of the rotor blades that put fear in the hearts of the enemy … and brought comfort to our troops on the ground. One could say that the Vietnam War was a constant cacophony of manmade thunder.

In this presentation, I will use some of those "witness" statements and other stories from the book as examples to illustrate the ideas I am presenting.

Today, we live in a "me-too" culture, where many claim to be victims of our society, victims of the system and victims of abuse of all types. They claim that the difficulties in their life are a direct result of things that have been done to them and that they are not responsible for their failures. It is never their fault; it is always someone else’s fault. Many have no means of coping with the stresses in their lives and often turn to drugs or alcohol in a vain attempt to soothe their pain.

We also live in a "me-first" culture which supports the idea that whatever it takes to succeed is ok. The means for achieving success does not matter; it only matters that the end result is personal success usually defined and measured by fame and fortune, all of which is intended to lead to our happiness.

However, what we find today is a world bereft of true happiness, with many people feeling unfulfilled, highly stressed and empty of any sense of self-worth, and wondering what they have done that is meaningful in their lives.

For many people, they have no Faith, and they have no relationship with God; He is just not part of their life. They are "flying solo" with no idea where they are going or how to get there.

Many people who have read my book have asked me how I survived the intense and prolonged combat that I describe in the book. They want to know where I found the strength to endure in the white hot heat of almost daily combat. My answer to their question is always the same, it was through my Faith and through the Grace of God that I survived.

Let me explain -

There are three words that can help us live fuller, more meaningful lives every day. Those three words, FAITH, COURAGE and DUTY are the corner stones by which I survived two years of combat in the Vietnam War, and by which I have tried to live my life every day.

FAITH - which helps us embrace miracles every day and builds trust in our God; COURAGE - which is both physical and moral; and DUTY - to one’s self and to others. These three words have been lost in a culture that embraces being politically correct at all costs and a culture that celebrates anything that is centered on the self.

To illustrate these ideas, I will be drawing on my own experience as a combat helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War that I wrote about in my book, "THUNDER," a book that tells my stories of Faith, Courage and Duty.


Those of us who are believers understand the importance of Faith in our lives. We have developed a relationship with our God and are aware of the presence of Jesus in our lives. Our beliefs, our Faith, are grounded in our religious traditions of scripture and worship. But the question is, are we able to stay FAITH-centered in our daily lives. When faced with stress, adversity and crisis, can we rely on our FAITH to get us through those times?



Sometime in late December 1967, while supporting a Top Secret Special Forces mission called SOG, we were getting prepared to put a team out on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. We got an emergency call from a small unit in Laos that claimed they were being followed by a large North Vietnamese Army (NVA) unit and needed to be extracted immediately. By declaring a "Tactical Emergency," or "TAC-E," they took priority over other missions. The SOG command group authorized us to attempt to extract the small team as soon as possible.

I organized an extraction mission with three lift ships and two gunships to locate the team and pull them out. I was the air mission commander, and I flew the lead ship. The small, six-man team was located deep into Laos, which put us at the edge of our fuel range. If we had problems trying to get them out, fuel would quickly become a problem for us. Many times flying the SOG mission into Laos and Cambodia we were at the limits of our fuel range.

When we located the team, they were on the side of a hill in a small Landing Zone or LZ with large trees all around it. I did a high and low reconnaissance of the LZ and was thankful I did not draw fire. It was necessary to do a high circling approach and a vertical descent through the trees. I would not be able to get to the ground because of many blown-off stumps, so I would have to hold the aircraft at a hover with my blades just over the tops of the tree stumps. As I let down into the LZ through the trees and stumps, I had to put my tail rotor between two very large trees in order to keep the main blades clear of the other trees. It was late in the day and I knew if we did not get them out on the first try we would not be able to come back that day.

As I came to a hover, I was receiving precise directions from my crew chief and door gunner on how much room I had on either side of the helicopter, especially for the tail rotor. They gave me guidance such as "move the aircraft a foot to the left … bring the tail two feet right," etc. As we hovered in the LZ, it was necessary for my crew chief to reach down in order to grab the hand of a soldier to pull him up into the ship.

At some point his microphone cord became disconnected, and while he thought I was hearing his directions I heard nothing. My main rotor blades struck one of the large tree stumps and my tail rotor was pushed immediately into one of the trees near it. It all happened in an instant. Miraculously, the blade strike caught the bottom of the blade just behind the main spar on the leading edge — a matter of 2 inches at most. Both blades took the hit about 3 feet in from the tips. I immediately pulled the aircraft up and tried to regain control. The team on the ground disappeared back into the jungle, thinking they were about to see a helicopter tear itself apart in the trees. As I tried to steady the helicopter, my co-pilot, a new lieutenant who had recently joined our unit, tried to open his door to jump out. After some quick colorful words to him about staying in his seat, I called the gunship leader who was covering us, to tell them I was damaged and going to come out of the hover hole. The aircraft had a violent one-to-one vibration and we could see the silver pieces of honeycomb from the inside of the blades flying around as the blades flexed. It was difficult to hold my feet on the pedals because of the extreme vibration from the badly damaged tail rotor. I pulled the aircraft up out of the trees and started to move forward. I could not get more than 40 to 50 knots of speed. My gunship lead took a look around the ship and said he did not see any other damage, but pieces of the blades continued to fly out.

I prayed hard and headed back to our base at Dak To, a trip of about 50 km. I stayed low to the trees, expecting that at any minute I was going to have to crash into the trees because the main rotor blades failed. The entire trip back was over triple canopy jungle with no place to land a helicopter. It was one of the tensest flights I have had in a helicopter.

As soon as I cleared the security wire at the Dak To base, I put the helicopter down in a field and shut it down. All of us climbed out, and as the main blades slowed to a stop, we could see the extent of the damage to the main rotors, which was amazing. The tail rotor was also badly damaged and bent.

Not long after that, the unit maintenance officer came up from Pleiku to look at the damage. As he walked around the ship, he just kept shaking his head and saying this helicopter simply could not fly but I had just flown it nearly 50 kilometers.

Was this a miracle? Was missing the leading edge of the main rotor blades by about 2 inches just luck? The severe damage done to my tail rotor from hitting a tree could have easily caused it to fail and the aircraft would have spun out of control and gone down into the trees in a fiery, twisted ball of burning metal. My co-pilot thought we would surely crash so he was trying to jump out of the aircraft, in an instant he had given up on our chances for survival. The Special Forces Team on the ground thought we would be crashing into the trees so they all ran back into the jungle to get away from what they were sure was about to happen.

As I flew that heavily damaged aircraft knowing that at any second it could fail I knew the only thing I had going for me was a miracle, and I continually prayed for one all the way back. I trusted that my crew and I were in God’s hands; I just needed to keep on doing my job and fly the helicopter to the best of my ability.

In my mind, in my Faith, He gave us a miracle and I knew my trust in Him was total. At that time, I knew that we lived or died by His Will.

How often can I say "I trust in you Jesus" knowing that my life here on earth may be at an end?


Flying into Laos and Cambodia in support of that Top Secret Special Forces SOG mission along the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the most challenging flying I had ever done. The mountains, the sketchy weather, and the intensity of the enemy fire was a lethal combination that claimed the lives of many pilots and crews. It was truly flying on the edge, which tested every aspect of my mind, body and soul. That said, the most difficult flying of all was a night flight into the mountains of Laos or Cambodia in bad weather. It was nothing short of a nightmare.

I believe it was at the beginning of February 1968 that I was awoken, at about 1:00 a.m., by the duty officer at the Forward Operating Base known as FOB II. My flight records indicate I flew 8.3 hours, of which 2.3 were at night on Feb. 1.

One of the small teams that had been operating up north in Laos in an area called "Dollar Lake" was reporting heavy contact in the mountains and declaring a Tactical Emergency or TAC-E and were requesting immediate extraction. I woke up my crews, got dressed, and went to the Base Operations Center in an underground bunker. The camp commander and his staff were all there debating what could be done. As I came into the room, they were looking at options to try and save the unit. I could hear the radio chatter from the team in the field, which was being relayed through a radio relay site in Laos. The weather was bad, with thunderstorms in the mountains.

The camp commander made the decision to launch a rescue effort as soon as we could get airborne. After listening to all the available information, including that they had no casualties and that they had plenty of ammunition left, it was not adding up to me. They also reported that they had not been in direct contact with the enemy for hours.

I told the camp commander I thought it was a suicide mission with a high possibility of failure, given the location and the weather. I asked if he would consider a first-light launch instead of the night launch. He was not happy with me, and he put a call in to my company commander, back at Camp Holloway. In the meantime, I got my crews up and ready. We would take four lift ships and two gunships. I was the Air Mission Commander and would fly the lead helicopter.

My Company Commander supported the camp commander for the mission, so I launched at close to 2 a.m. Once airborne, I was able to get my Company Commander on my radio and told him I thought that this was a suicide mission that was not needed, and we would have a much better chance for success in the daylight. He insisted we try. I told him I was sorry he did not support my judgment and that I was very upset with him. In his defense, I knew he really had no choice but to tell me to try. None of us knew how desperate the men on the ground really were and our job was to support them as best we could.

We headed west out of Vietnam into Laos at about 5,000 feet above ground level, which kept us above the local mountains. The weather was stormy and we had trouble staying in formation. I was told we would have an Air Force C-130 cargo plane overhead to drop flares for us when we arrived in the vicinity of the team. I was not happy, but I did not let my crew know how unhappy I was.

All the crews were anxious and highly stressed as we flew out to the mountains of Laos. Along the way, as we approached the border of South Vietnam and Laos, there were flashes in the sky all around us. One of the pilots in the formation cried out on the radio that he was receiving air bursts around his helicopter. I assured him that he was not getting air bursts from enemy anti-aircraft fire, he was seeing the lightning that was all around us.

When we finally arrived, above the clouds and over the team’s location, I got a situation report from the team leader. We were able to locate them by homing in on their FM radio frequency. The team leader was a young, very excited Special Forces sergeant. He said he was in a small LZ on the side of a mountain. He said he was not in contact with the enemy at that time and he thought he could see the clouds about 300 feet above his position. At that time the Air Force C-130 pilot called on the radio to give his location.

The plan was that the C-130 would drop illumination flares, on parachutes, through the clouds and the team leader on the ground would give us information on how high the clouds were when the flares broke through. He would also give us a vector, a direction to fly, from the descending flares to his position.

I told the flight of aircraft with me to stay high in a wide circle, and that I did not want the gunships to engage unless I had a target for them. When the flares came down, I started a circling descent around the flares, hoping to break out of the clouds before I hit the trees. I had my landing light and spotlight on, which did not help in the clouds but would be critical as soon as we broke out.

On my first attempt I got a bad case of vertigo. I had already instructed my pilot to stay on the instruments, and if I lost it with vertigo, dizziness, I would pass the controls to him so he could fly us back up through the clouds. He did that. On the second attempt, the same thing happened and we came back up again. The team leader on the ground said he had seen my landing light through the clouds and that I was coming down close to his location.

On the third attempt, we broke out of the clouds over the trees and were able to locate the LZ quickly. It was large enough for me to go directly into it and flat enough for me to get close to the ground so the Special Forces team of 6 men could all jump in. We did not hear or see any enemy fire.

Once I had them all on board, I went back up through the clouds and formed up the flight of helicopters for the trip back to base. The C-130 pilot checked out of the radio net and headed for home, which I believe was in Thailand.

As we were flying a southeasterly heading back to base, I was hoping the weather would not close down on us. I was wrong. We started getting into thicker and thicker clouds. I had the entire flight tighten up in formation with our external navigation lights on bright so we could see each other in the clouds. The last thing I wanted was helicopters lost out in the clouds. Many of the pilots struggled with their flight instruments because the only training any of us had with instrument flight was a tactical instrument card, which was the bare minimum if you found yourself in the clouds.

It was about 3:30 and everyone was getting low on fuel. Our helicopter fuel gauges measured the amount of fuel in pounds, rather than gallons. It was an extremely dark night and we kept flying in and out of clouds with lightning continuing to flash around us. I was praying that we were on the correct heading. In those days, we had very limited navigation aids in Vietnam, with most of our flying being "dead reckoning" off a compass heading.

The flight seemed endless and I wasn’t sure if we would have enough fuel to get back. There was absolutely nowhere in that jungle to put our helicopters down if we ran out of fuel. If we flamed out we would crash into the jungle.

The first fuel call I got was from one of the gunships. The pilot reported his 20-minute fuel light had just come on. The light was an emergency warning to let you know, if it was accurate, that your engine would quit in 20 minutes. It wasn’t long before the other pilots reported their 20-minute lights were on, and not long after that, mine came on.

I did not know how far we had to go, or even where we were at that point. I just kept praying. Suddenly I had an idea. I knew that there was a 155 millimeter artillery battery located near the Dak To base, and that they were not far from the fuel point. I searched my frequency book for the unit’s radio frequency and call sign. I found it and started calling the unit, praying someone would be awake on the radio. After two or three tries, I got a response from their operations center.

I requested that they fire illumination rounds over the top of the Dak To fuel point to guide us in. It was not long before I heard them call the mission as "shot fired," with a delay and then "splash," which meant the round was out and illuminating.

I strained looking through the clouds but saw nothing. Another "shot fired … splash." Off in the distance I could see a very faint glow. Another "shot fired … splash." Yes, there it was off our nose! All the crews saw it. As we headed for the light, I just kept praying that no one flamed out. We all landed at the fuel point safely with very little fuel left in the tanks.

I thanked the Arty guys for their help. I did not know who they were and never found out.

Was this a miracle? Was our getting to the team in the field through the clouds and mountains and then getting down through clouds a miracle? I thought it was a suicide mission that I would not return from; there was just too much that could go wrong. The fact that we were able to stay together as a flight of four Huey lift helicopters and two gunships flying through storm clouds over the mountains was itself a miracle as far as I was concerned. Was it a miracle when I was desperately praying, lost in the night sky, running out of fuel, asking for help, and I suddenly got an inspiration to contact the artillery unit? Where did the inspiration come from? The fact that, at that time in the morning, the artillery unit operations center heard my call and provided the lifesaving light we needed was for me yet another miracle. I trusted in my Faith in God, and I was not disappointed.

If you believe in miracles you can see them all around you. You just have to look through the eyes of Faith to see them; and, when you do, that builds your trust that He is always with you no matter what.

Could the outcome have been different that night and ended with my death and the death of my crew? Absolutely! If it did, it was supposed to be, and I was mentally and spiritually prepared for that. I knew my life could end at any minute, but I could not allow the fear of death to paralyze me and prevent me from doing what I knew was right – my Duty.


Seeing the miracles in our lives every day and knowing the Source of those miracles build within us a deep sense of trust in God, a profound trust that is grounded in the knowledge that God will not let us down. It does not mean that we will not suffer pain and loss in our lives - we all do - but we know that in His Divine Mercy and love all that happens in our lives is an opportunity to know God better and to love Him more. Trusting in God for all the daily decisions of our lives will bring peace to our lives and remove the stress and anxiety that can destroy our spirit and steal our joy of living.



All of us can think of times when we have witnessed people who displayed great physical courage. One example is the actions of first responders during terrible disasters such as the horror of the 9/11 attacks. When we see that behavior, we may wonder how they do that. Where do they get the courage to face what may be certain death? We wonder if we could have done the same thing. Many people who have read my book "THUNDER" ask me how I was able to deal with the daily stress of combat and how I had the courage to go on day after day.

My answer is always the same: through my Faith and the Grace of God. I trusted Him completely to watch over me and my men. I trusted Him completely to watch over my wife and children back home --- and He did.


For the Special Forces SOG mission I was supporting, there was an area in Laos that had the code name "Hotel 9," which designated a geographical area near an east-west river about 30 km inside Laos and directly west of the tri-border area, where the borders of Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam intersected. In December of 1967, intelligence indicated that the target area, "Hotel 9," had a large communication center and a transportation node for traffic coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was suspected that there was an underwater bridge that allowed truck traffic to cross the river in that area. At that point the river had two big loops which, from the air, looked like a big bra. The word "bra" was often used as a quick reference for that area.

The mission came down in early December to insert a large force of about 40 men into the area. The force, known as a Hornet Force, was made up of a few American Special Forces personnel, while most of the force consisted of indigenous personnel, most of them Montagnards, indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. We inserted the Hornet Force on Dec. 10 with heavy air support. I remember being in the lead ship, and as we landed in the Landing Zone –(LZ), the crew chief reported seeing a large black cable running underneath our aircraft. It was clearly a communications cable for a large enemy unit. That was reported to the SOG Tactical Operations Center (TOC) when we returned to base.

It was not long before the North Vietnamese responded with large-scale attacks against the Hornet Force. Casualties quickly mounted for them and it became evident that they could not survive if they were left in their position. The fighting was fierce and there was a need to bring in water and ammunition. My helicopters were staging out of the Dak To airfield base. The airfield was near the Laos border and provided both fuel and ammunition for our aircraft. We could monitor the action on our FM radios as we waited to get the order to launch.

Finally, late in the afternoon of Dec. 11, the order came to resupply the Hornet Force with water and ammunition. My flight of eight UH-1 helicopters and six UH-1C gunships were ready to go. We thought we were going to try to extract the unit, but that was stopped because the fire in the area was too intense. Instead, I would fly in with a single load of water and ammunition, and I would be covered with four of my gunships and some Air Force fighter-bombers.

On any SOG mission, our flight package always included at least one empty UH-1 helicopter as a "chase ship" that had the mission of recovering any air crew shot down.

I went out with two chase ships that day. We were running out of daylight, but as I arrived in the area of the Landing Zone (LZ) I could see the colored panel marking the LZ, which was nothing more than a small hover hole among a bunch of heavily damaged trees. It was clear that there was not enough room to land, so I would have to come to a hover in the LZ. I did not know how close I could get to the ground. The Air Force bombed the area around the LZ as close as they could, to try to suppress the enemy fire. I decided the only way I could get in was to do a high circling approach. To do that, I came in from about 3,000 feet above the ground and literally put the aircraft out of trim and laid it on its side so it would drop like a rock. I needed to get the highest rate of descent I could get in order to limit the amount of exposure to small-arms fire. In this kind of approach, timing was everything and you had to pull in maximum power at the last minute to stop your descent before you hit the ground. It took a lot of skill to perform this kind of tactical approach.

With my gunships laying down suppressive fire, I made my descent. We received significant fire but the gunships and the ground forces were able to suppress it enough for me to get into the hover hole. We could not get close to the ground because the LZ was on the side of large hill and the damaged trees blocked my descent to the ground. My crew chief and gunner were able to get water containers and ammunition out the door and into the hands of the troops on the ground. At that point, it would have been impossible to pick up any of the wounded. The LZ had to be improved, or the force would have to move to a more usable LZ.

I came out of the LZ, and as I got above the trees the enemy fire picked up. I made a rapid turn and low-leveled out of the area at treetop level. It was getting dark and we returned to the FOB. All aircraft returned safely, but I believe a couple of the gunships had taken hits.

That night, there was a briefing in the TOC. It was clear the Hornet Force was in deep trouble and at risk of being overrun. They had wounded they needed to get evacuated before they could move to another location with a better LZ.

The mission was set for the next day, Dec. 12. I was the air mission commander and flight lead. I had been into the LZ once and knew the area. The troops on the ground were able to use some of their claymore mines to blow up a couple of the damaged trees to make a little more room for me.

Early on Dec. 12, we staged out of the Dak To airstrip again. We waited to get the word to launch on the mission. We went in with five lift ships and six gunships. The plan was for me to fly lead into the LZ to pull out the worst of the wounded, followed by another ship to pick up the rest of the wounded. The remaining three lift ships were to fly as chase aircraft, ready to recover any crews shot down.

We launched about noon and flew out to the vicinity of the LZ. The troops on the ground had improved the LZ a little. Air Force fighter-bombers had been working over the area all morning, and the troops on the ground reported that enemy fire was light at that point.

For this mission, I carried a Special Forces medic with me. Sargeant 1st Class Luke Nance, a very experienced medic, was with us that day on my aircraft. He provided a witness statement of the events that followed. I have included that witness statement below.

"On 12 December 1967 while in support of a classified mission we received word that our unit was in heavy contact with an enemy force and had, at the time 12 wounded personnel and 4 KIA. Some of the wounded were in critical condition and required immediate extraction in order to save their lives. A slick piloted by Platoon Leader, CPT John Heslin and Aircraft Commander, WO Brayton Witherell; Crew Chief, SP5 Hartsfield; Gunner, SP4 Mantayne and myself, the medic, was to be the first chopper into the area to extract the seriously wounded. As we arrived at the area and started into the LZ the enemy opened with a barrage of automatic weapons fire, CPT Heslin quickly informed the gunners to return the fire, and unhesitatingly continued the dangerous descent to the LZ, intent only in extracting the wounded. With exceptional flying skill he and the aircraft commander maneuvered the helicopter between trees, high stumps, and unlevel ground. The terrain was so rugged they could not land and hovered 3 to 5 feet off the ground while I was putting the wounded men in the chopper. The aircraft was taking hit after hit from the intense enemy fire. The gunners were furiously laying out effective fire to cover the ship. I put as many of the wounded in the helicopter that it was capable of carrying and again CPT Heslin and WO Witherell began to maneuver the aircraft out of the battle zone. The helicopter receiving multiple hits and finding their mark forced us to crash land in the midst of the enemy unit. The gunners again threw out a wall of machine gun fire killing several of the NVA. One of the gunners, SP5 Hartsfield, expended all of his ammo, and snatched up an M-79 and began showering the NVA with 40mm rounds. CPT Heslin immediately took command of our situation and formed us into a perimeter to defend our position. The chase helicopters, aware of our situation, came in to extract us. Completely disregarding their own safety, CPT Heslin and SP5 Hartsfield left their defensive position and repeatedly exposed themselves, under intense enemy fire, to carry the wounded to the rescue helicopters. WO Witherell and SP4 Mantayne were fighting fiercely, exposing themselves numerous times, to insure the wounded could be loaded and evacuated. After the wounded were secured we then allowed ourselves to be extracted. The personal bravery and precise teamwork of these 4 men in the face of certain disaster is of the highest caliber. Many lives were saved because of the heroism displayed by each of them….."

Flying in Vietnam during the war was extremely stressful and intense. A small error often meant life or death for oneself and one's crew. I saw many helicopter wrecks, often with the helicopter ending up in a big orange ball of fire. One of my great fears — and I think it was the same for most of us who flew — was to end up in a ship on fire. I still think of that to this day.

I never saw myself as a hero but rather as part of a crew trying to save the lives of desperate men. We were doing our duty. We all had to reach deep to find the physical courage to continue when we were staring at our death. It was my Faith that gave me that courage.


A few days after that mission I was again faced with a life and death situation. As the air mission commander, I took the nightly briefings in the FOB operations bunker. It was clear that the "targets" for our missions were being selected at a very high level. Present at those briefings was usually the FOB commander; his operations officer, or S-3; the team leader that was going to be inserted; and usually the Special Forces FAC, or forward air controller. The FAC had the call sign of "Covey" and he served as a radio relay for the team on the ground and would coordinate the air support for the mission. The FAC could be a junior officer or an enlisted man, usually a sergeant.

On the evening of Dec. 15, the next-day operation was briefed. We were to put in a small team that had a reconnaissance mission directly on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. We had been running a number of missions into Cambodia, but the action seemed to be moving back up to Laos. At that point, it was evident something big was coming down from the north and the Trail was very busy. We were aware of refueling points along the trail and NVA truck parks.

The tentative LZ for the insertion was identified by map reconnaissance and it was decided that we would use a low-level, high-speed approach to the LZ. It was also decided that we would make several fake approaches to areas en route as a means of deception. The intelligence portion of the briefing made it very clear that the NVA had placed personnel on most open areas that could be used as an LZ, so they would know when we went in. At that time, the NVA had also started to put mines on the open areas that might be used as an LZ. We had experienced that already and had to abort a few missions because of mines.

During the briefing, I requested that the FAC use Air Force assets to put some bombs on the LZ before we went in, to detonate any mines that might be there. I suggested that they could hit several of the fake LZs to confuse the enemy. The officer who was designated to be the Forward Air Controller (FAC) for the mission pushed back and said it would just alert the NVA and would not be a good idea. I made the case that they would know we were coming anyway and that the bombs would give the team going in at least a little assurance of no mines on the ground so they could off-load and get into the jungle quickly. The camp commander agreed with me and it was set.

I was lead ship and air mission commander the next day and made the low-level approach with fake insertions along the way. As I approached the final LZ, I had an uneasy feeling that there had not been any bombs dropped. I was right. It went badly. Below is a witness statement by Special Forces Sargent Garrett V. Graves of the mission.

"On 16 Dec 67 I observed heroism in the highest order by CPT John Heslin, 119th Aviation Company.

Deep in the enemy’s own territory an insertion was being aborted with 3 helicopter loads already on the ground protecting themselves on the LZ as best they could from a well-placed enemy mortar barrage. The team had Wounded In Action’s (WIA) from the mortars as well as from mines placed on and around the LZ.

It was under these circumstances that CPT Heslin having returned to the launch site to refuel took off to be again the first ship in so that the WIA’s, badly mauled by mines and mortar shrapnel, could be evacuated. Enemy small arms fire drove him off in his first attempt, and realizing that the mortar tubes which were obviously zeroed in on the LZ might still be emplaced, CPT Heslin, over the radio "This is Blue 1, I’m going in again." And again automatic weapons fire drove him off together with an explosion which later proved to be an exploding antipersonnel mine. For the second time CPT Heslin broke around and began his third approach. With determination and courage, which under the circumstances was beyond a pilots call, he set his ship down on the LZ, scooped up the WIA’s and pulled pitch. CPT Heslin’s behavior during this action not only conformed to the highest traditions of an officer in the US Army but rises beyond duty’s call to any man. I therefore recommend CPT Heslin for further recognition by receiving an award commensurate with his demonstrated outstanding flying skill and bravery."

On the second approach into the LZ, my skid hit a personnel mine, which damaged the skid and a soldier was blown through the aircraft. I quickly came out of the LZ and went around and made my third approach, this time able to land — even with the damaged skid — to pick up the wounded. Eventually all the members of the small team were evacuated.

What do we do when faced with the possibility, if not the likelihood, of our death? What enables us to reach inside and pull up an inner strength which allows us to push through the fear and act? For me, it was my Faith and Trust in God. What are we called on to do at that moment when we are faced with our death? Should we try and save our lives or press ahead and enter the fire to save other lives if possible. It is not an easy decision. None of us know when we might be faced with a choice to act or not act, when we know that in taking action we may be seriously injured or die as a result of our efforts.

Physical courage is the stuff of endless movies and books, often fictional accounts of heroic action. As a culture, we are inundated with fake heroes while, at the same time, there are many real heroes all around us that we are unaware of. Think of all the combat veterans or first responders who may live in your community. Most do not want to talk about their experiences, and most would never call themselves heroes, but they are.

When you are willing to risk your life for others, to put your life on the line, knowing full well you may lose it, I believe that self-sacrificing act makes you a hero. The youth of our country need to learn about a life of self-sacrifice and to know people who demonstrate physical courage in their service to others. We have too many false heroes in our culture, and many do not appreciate the true heroes around us.


It is relatively easy to see when someone acts with physical courage in the face of real danger to themselves. Less obvious, but equally important, is the concept of Moral Courage.

In our culture today, we are surrounded by temptations to live a life that puts "me first" even at the expense of others, where it seems that everything is relative with no absolutes of right and wrong. There is no black and white, just varying shades of gray.

As Faith-filled people we are constantly under assault for our religious beliefs. Efforts are all around us to seduce us away from our beliefs. We are ostracized and ridiculed for believing in a God who loves us and for trying to live our lives according to His laws and His Will. It is more and more difficult to stand up to these assaults, to identify the evil in our world, to use the word sin in labeling the actions of those who do harm to others in the pursuit of their own selfish goals.

So how do we face these challenges that call for us to have courage and stand up for our beliefs? Like the warriors in battle, we must be willing to acknowledge the evil around us and call it what it is. In spite of criticism, and at the risk of losing relationships with friends and even possibly with family members, we must have the courage of our beliefs and count on our Faith and Trust in God to face these often daily challenges. We are being watched by our children and others who learn that it is our actions, not just our words that define who we are and what we believe.


Not long ago I was sitting with my two oldest sons who had recently read my book "THUNDER." I asked them to summarize their impression of the book in just a few words. My oldest son did not hesitate for a moment; he simply said "Duty." For him the book spoke of doing one’s duty in the face of adversity and danger.


One of the absolute rules of being an Army pilot was that you were always a volunteer. By that, I mean that no one could ever force you to climb into an aircraft and fly it. You always had the option of saying simply, "I quit!" It did not happen often, but I certainly had heard of cases where that happened.

After a fatal accident happened in my early days of flight training, a number of student pilots simply quit. I also knew of an extreme case of a pilot taking off his wings and saying he would never fly again. It happened to a friend of mine, and without telling the whole story, I will say that on a mission in Vietnam with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in 1965, my friend, who was a warrant officer pilot, flew back to base in an aircraft in which every member of his crew, along with all the infantry on his helicopter, were either killed or wounded. No one escaped being hit but him. The later story of my friend is amazing but it is not for me to tell here.

One morning at the Special Forces Forward Operating Base, FOB II, as my flight of aircraft for the mission that day were all cranking up, one of my young warrant officers, who had been scheduled as the Aircraft Commander for one of the aircraft, came up to my cockpit window and told me he was quitting. He just could not fly again. It was a tense moment. He knew and I knew I could not order him to climb back into the aircraft and fly the mission.

I told him to go back to where he was staying in the FOB and I would see him later. I went to find another pilot to cover the mission.

Although the replacement pilot wasn’t happy, he climbed into the aircraft and we flew the mission that day with all of us returning without incident or damage.

Some of my warrant officer pilots were upset with me for not forcing the issue and making the pilot fly. I understood how they felt. We all knew that any mission could be our last.

Later that evening, I went looking for the warrant officer who had refused to fly. I found him sitting on the side of his cot smoking a cigarette. His face was red and it appeared he had been crying. As I approached, he stood up. I said sit down, and we both sat there on the edge of his cot. He said his aircraft had taken so many hits in the past few weeks that he was sure he was a "magnet," and the next hit would kill him. He was terrified.

It is impossible to get in the head of another human being and truly understand what they are thinking or feeling. Fear was part of our everyday experience flying helicopters in combat. I felt it; most of us did. I always said that fear is your friend but panic would kill you. Fear heightened your senses. It made you sharper as the adrenaline raced through your veins. I knew men who became adrenaline junkies. Just about every day was an adrenaline hit flying helicopters in combat. If a pilot told me he never felt fear, I believed he was either lying to me or to himself, or that he was just delusional. I didn’t want to fly with someone like that.

I can recall that on some especially difficult combat assault missions, with enemy fire hitting all around us and bombs blowing up almost beside us, the fear would overwhelm me. I clearly remember my knees shaking so badly I could hardly keep my feet on the anti-torque pedals of the aircraft, and I had to bite my lips to the point of bleeding in order to steady my voice while talking on the radio. At times it required an intense act of the will to hold the fear down and not let it push me into a panic.

Fear was normal in that setting. What you could not allow to happen was to cross the extremely thin line between fear and panic — panic killed. Panic would paralyze you and you would be unable to save yourself or anyone else. I saw it happen more than once in combat, and I heard the last radio transmissions from doomed pilots who were in total panic mode.

None of us know for sure how we will react to fear until faced with it. We could only pray that when faced with the moment, we would have the strength to stand in the fire and get through it. I would never make the claim that because I had been courageous in one situation I would always be courageous. The lion today could be the lamb tomorrow. We can only hope that we always will face either moral danger or physical danger with courage.

Talking to the young warrant officer that evening, I suggested that while his fear was real, the decision he was making to not fly again because of that fear would have long-term consequences that he didn't realize. He would always have to live with the fact that he quit, and that would be a ghost that would visit him the rest of his life.

We talked some more, and he told me about his wife back home and the fact that they had a child. I told him I, too, had a wife and two children back home. We discovered that we both came from Rhode Island and had memories of the same places. When I left him, I told him I was scheduling him to fly with me the next day as my pilot. I told him I expected him to show up on the flight line early to help me with the aircraft pre-flight inspection. I told him we would be OK and that we just had to stay focused on what we were doing and not let what was happening around us paralyze us.

At first light, he was at the aircraft with me and we flew the mission together. He was a great pilot and the issue never came up again. No one bothered him about it and no one refused to fly with him. Months later, he went home to his family. I never knew what happened to him after that.

In the end, the young warrant officer did his Duty. At the time, he may not have realized that in doing his duty he was helping himself.

When we think of the concept of doing one’s duty, we don’t always recognize that there are two aspects of it. There is duty to oneself and duty to others. Often we readily recognize how important it is to help those around us, family members, and people at work, neighbors and even complete strangers when we become aware of a need such as in a natural disaster like a destructive storm. We do not so readily recognize that we have a duty to ourselves. We are responsible in lifestyle choices, to make responsible decisions that will help us to stay healthy. We need to recognize and embrace opportunities to improve ourselves physically, emotionally, and especially spiritually. We have a duty to ourselves that only we can respond to; and, when we neglect that duty, we diminish who we are and who we might become. It is an obligation that many do not see as important in their lives. We often see examples of self-abuse in all forms of behavior from poor eating and drinking habits, to living a life of indolence with no thought toward improving one’s self.


One of the most under-recognized groups of people during times of war are the family members left behind, especially the wives of service men. Without a doubt, these wives were heroes in their own right. They often took care of all the family needs, especially child care, without the assistance of their spouse who was off fighting a war. They had to be selfless in meeting the needs of their children and dedicated to doing their duty for those in their care on a daily basis. For many, and certainly for my wife, the strength of Faith and trust in God were essential to getting through the day.

During my first tour in Vietnam I received word, through the Red Cross, that my oldest child required surgery. At that time, my wife was taking care of two small children and was late in her pregnancy with our third child. The decision was made by my company commander to send me home on emergency leave to be with my wife and children. I was enormously appreciative of that. He said since I knew the gravity of the situation at home, I would be terribly distracted and that might have a serious impact on my mission performance. I thanked him for his decision.

Orders were cut that set in motion the long journey back to the States. There was great relief for my wife that I was able to return. She was near her wits’ end trying to deal with the upcoming surgery on our son, which was to be at Boston Children’s Hospital — about 40 miles from our home — as well as managing our daughter, and the nearness of the birth of our third child. What she had been dealing with was more than anyone should have to do alone. She is a very strong woman, but there is a limit for all of us and she was close to hitting her limit. No one could blame her — certainly not me.

It was a tumultuous time of dealing with doctors, meeting appointment schedules and providing for our daughter. People stepped in to help all along the way, including a Catholic monastery in Boston, with the nuns willing to allow my wife, our daughter and me to stay in the monastery for the duration of our son’s stay in the hospital. Another group of nuns in a different monastery would take our daughter in during the day to care for her while we were at the hospital.

My memories of that period are a bit of a blur. I know the surgery was successful and our son was able to return home after two weeks in the hospital. There was hope that my wife would actually give birth while I was home, but the birth process was not advancing fast enough for that to happen. There were some who strongly suggested that Jean have the doctor induce the birth before I had to leave, but our doctor and Jean were opposed to forcing the birth.

I left to return to Vietnam before our third child — our second son — was born. Jean made me promise not to fly a helicopter again until I heard that our child had been born. I assured her that I would do as she asked, but I knew there was no way to keep that promise. Our son was born on June 11th 1968, and my flight records show that I flew 11 hours that day on combat missions.

While it was difficult for us "fighting the war," it was also very difficult for the wives who had to do it all, with no promise that their husbands would come home safely. It was traumatic at times.

My wife Jean told me a story of being visited by two uniformed Army men. She saw a military sedan pulling up in front of the apartment and two uniformed soldiers coming to the front door. She had two little children hanging onto her as she opened the door, feeling ready to pass out, and waiting for what she fully expected to be the notification of my death in action. The men asked if she was Mrs. Heslin. All she could do was nod her head yes. The men saw that she was greatly distraught and said that they had come to inspect the furniture damage for which we had filed a claim. She broke down and said her husband was in Vietnam, and the two Sergeants immediately understood. They helped her to a chair and were full of apologies; they said they didn’t know her husband was in Vietnam. It was a moment that has stayed with my wife to this day.

Jean is a woman who understood what it meant to do your duty every day, to serve others when there was no one else to help. Without her devotion and commitment, our children might have grown up very differently than they did. For her commitment to doing her duty, every day, I will forever be thankful.

Some people have asked me where I got the gift of my Faith. Who gave it to me? The answer can be found in the last letter I wrote at the end of my first tour in Vietnam.

My last letter written in Vietnam, which I wrote to my parents, was on Oct. 10, 1968. Years later, the letter was found by my sisters who were cleaning out my parents’ house after my father died. They found it among some "precious" items my mother had kept. My sister sent me the letter which I have reproduced here as a way to convey what I was thinking as I ended my first combat tour. The great gift of Faith I have was a gift from my parents.

Dear Mom & Dad,

I think this will be the last letter I have to write from Viet Nam. I wanted to write this letter to tell you what wonderful parents you are. You are an outstanding example for the rest of us to live up to. You have taught us all the true meaning of love and the real values to live by. How often I have thought of things you have said — advice you have given that has shaped my life. What I am — whatever I may do — you can honestly say is what you have made of me. Today the difficulties of bringing up children almost seem insurmountable yet, I can see by what you have done — with the help of God children can be brought up to know, love and serve God.

Mom & Dad, you can take great joy and satisfaction in the knowledge that because you two grand people have been here, this world is a better place to live. Please God I pray that my children love and respect me as I do my parents.

No matter what horror we may see — no matter what hardships may befall us. Life can be so beautiful when seen through love tinted glasses.

God Love and Bless you.
Your loving Son,

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