Postcard from My Past

Postcard from My Past

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reader's Choice 20th Anniversary Edition

Postcard from My Past

History never looks like history when you are living through it.

~John W. Gardner

My medical evacuation helicopter crew of four wasn’t aware that we were about to be thrust into the middle of a major battle. It was late August 1969 in South Vietnam. The battle would involve 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 located approximately thirty to thirty-five miles southwest of Da Nang. These Americans would be facing 1,500 Communist soldiers.

As operations officer for the 236th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance), headquartered at Red Beach in Da Nang, I’d assigned myself — from August 20-22 — as copilot for our field-site crew at Landing Zone Baldy, twenty miles south of Da Nang. As a rookie pilot, I’d barely been in the unit a month.

In those two and a half days of devastating action, our crew evacuated 150 wounded Americans from the Que Son Valley near Hiep Duc on forty-two missions, fifteen of which were “insecure.” This meant that our ground troops couldn’t guarantee the safety of the landing zones because the enemy was in close contact or our friendlies were low on ammunition and couldn’t provide sufficient covering fire.

On a majority of these insecure missions, helicopter gunships weren’t available 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 go in alone, because most of the wounded wouldn’t have survived if we’d waited for gunships to arrive.

During the morning of August 21st, our UH-1H (Huey) was shot up by enemy AK-47 rifle fire while exiting another insecure landing zone. 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 oil over my Nomex 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. We deposited our patients at the Baldy battalion aid station while another helicopter was being flown out for our use.

Less than twenty-four hours later (August 22nd), we were shot up for the second time on another insecure mission while evacuating an African-American infantry staff sergeant who’d been shot in the back. Our medic was wounded in the throat on our way in. An AK-47 round tore out his larynx. Two of our three radios were also shot out and there were a number of bullet holes above my head in the cockpit and other areas of the aircraft.

In the aid station I held our medic’s legs while a doctor performed a tracheotomy without anesthesia, because the wound had swollen so quickly he couldn’t breathe. Fortunately, he somehow survived but had to endure over a dozen follow-up surgeries . . . one of which ultimately gave him back a voice.

Thirty-two years later, an intriguing chain of events began that would impact my life. It began with a story titled “The Postcard” by Rocky Bleier with David Eberhart in Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul. This book caught my attention as I was browsing through displays in a Lincoln, Nebraska bookstore. As I glanced at the first paragraph of his story, the words “Hiep Duc, in the Que Son Valley of South Vietnam,” and “August 20, 1969,” stopped me in my tracks. These words instantly brought back decades-old memories of danger, darkness and death.

Since that first paragraph of Bleier’s story had caught my attention, I purchased the book, read the entire story and then decided to do some additional research. I’d heard that Bleier had written an autobiography titled Fighting Back (with Terry O’Neil). This book covered his early life, the fact that he’d been drafted into the army in 1968 and details concerning his subsequent service in Vietnam in 1969 where he’d been severely wounded in both legs. He also provided the inspiring story of how he’d overcome his wounds, and a right foot that doctors thought — at one point — would have to be amputated, to win four NFL Super Bowls as a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979.

I was able to acquire a copy of the 1995 edition of Bleier’s book through an out-of-print book dealer and I sat down to read it as soon as it arrived in 2002.

Before reading the first chapter, I glanced at the “Contents” page. Chapter 7 quickly caught my attention. It was titled “August 20, 1969.” That was when things became nearly unbelievable.

On August 20th, Bleier was an M-79 grenadier with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. He was wounded twice near Million Dollar Hill east of Hiep Duc. His book mentioned that a medevac helicopter had already completed two previous missions to their location that night evacuating other wounded Company C comrades. Bleier was the next to last patient on this third and final flight to be evacuated to Baldy’s aid station at 2:00 a.m. on the 21st. That’s when it hit me.

I went to my military file 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 two and a half days of action. Everything fit. Our unit’s lone field-site was at Baldy and I only assigned one crew there at a time. Hiep Duc and Million Dollar Hill were in our area of operation and I suddenly recalled landing on the same hill three times in one night during that time. There wasn’t any doubt we were the medevac crew that had evacuated Bleier and his company comrades that hectic night.

Bleier’s Chicken Soup for the Soul story made a big difference in my life. I had no idea who we were carrying that night. They were all wounded Americans and it was our responsibility to evacuate them from that dangerous mountaintop.

None of us ever know whose life we will step into or who will step into ours. That’s one of the exciting and interesting wonders of life. Ernest Hemingway said, “The world (and also combat) breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Perhaps this is what happened to Bleier, our flight crew and so many others who’ve survived war. Adversity has a way of introducing us to ourselves.

If I hadn’t come across Bleier’s story, “The Postcard,” in Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul, I never would have discovered how our crew’s efforts — and other doctors and medical personnel — had an impact on football history. I will always be thankful we were given the privilege of assisting those courageous American warriors that night in Vietnam.

~Robert B. Robeson

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