From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

You’re Never Alone on a Mission

“I’ve only seen one aviator killed since I’ve been here,” my brother wrote in his last letter home, July 14, 1969. He had been in Vietnam for three weeks and was trying to reassure Mom. “You see, you’re never alone on a mission. There’s always somebody to protect you and get you out even before you hit the ground. I just don’t want you to get upset because if I go down, I’d only be on the ground for about three minutes before they’d get me out of the area. We have what they call a ‘downed bird alarm’ in all of the hooches. Whenever a bird goes down, every bird here is airborne and en route to provide assistance in less than two minutes. That includes running to your aircraft, starting it and taking off. So you see, there’s really nothing to worry about.”

Then just a week later, on July 21, David’s light observation helicopter was hit by a secondary explosion. He was the only one to survive the crash but died twelve days later, on August 3. He was nineteen.

I was only seven years old the day Mom, Dad and I saw David off at the airport on his way to Vietnam. One black-and-white Polaroid survives from that day: my mom smiling, heroically grasping two of her four kids, I, resentful of her hand clamping my shoulder, and my brother David, tall and proud in his “dress” tans.

David’s death affected my family in ways that were hard for me to understand as a child. Mom cried and fought hard to get more details from the Army. Dad grieved more quietly, and my older brother and sister, who were twenty-seven and sixteen when David died, stopped talking about him. I learned very early that the Vietnam War was a subject that brought out strong and frightening emotions in people, a subject better left alone.

Yet I did remember my brother, a little. I remembered being told I was his favorite, remembered his letters that always ended, “Say hi to everyone and Julie.” And I remembered vaguely how tall he looked in the flight suit with all the zippered pockets and how proud he was to model it for us in the living room the last time he was home on leave.

But as time passed, the name “David” came to mean the name on a marker in a cemetery, the color green, an insignia and some medals. It brought to mind the musty, overseas smell I will never forget, associated forever with the strange words “personal effects,” a box of military letters and papers and a few photos.

Each time I stared into the face in those photos, I tried so hard to remember the tone of his voice, how long his fingers were, how his jacket felt. But I couldn’t. To avoid the pain, no one talked about David, and, in fact, most of my best friends in high school never knew I lost a brother in Vietnam. The years went by, and I longed to find out more about him. I just didn’t know how.

In September 1993, I visited the Moving Wall in Shakopee, Minnesota, and picked up a brochure on the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the In Touch program. I filled out the registration, and a few months later, I received my first response. The man who responded had not known my brother but opened a whole new world for me, sending me advice on where to continue my search, a membership directory of the First Cav Division Association and a Cav pin.

It took a few years for me to find the Vietnam Helicopter Crew Members Association and Pilots Association, and the Vietnam Helicopter Flight Crew Network, a group of 350 former helicopter pilots, crew chiefs, door gunners and other crew members who have an organized presence on the Internet and a strong bond. The first time one of them e-mailed me offering to help me find friends of my brother, it brought tears to my eyes when I read, “Your brother was our brother.”

I began receiving e-mail from pilots sharing memories of their time in Vietnam with the First Cav and other units. Finally, after searching for three years for someone who knew David, a buddy of his from flight school, John Harris, contacted me. He told me about the funny times they’d shared, brawling on the bus on the way to the flight line, and the jokes they played on each other. At last, I was hearing the stories I never had a chance to hear.

Not long after, I received a note in the mail from a man who’d been in David’s unit with him. “It’s difficult to lose friends because the guys in C troop were closer than that, the bonds formed in combat are in many ways stronger than family,” John Powell wrote. “The day your brother went down, I was flying the ‘Big Bird’ (Cobra) cover and was there until he was recovered. I never knew what happened to him until now.”

On August 3, 1997, the twenty-eighth anniversary of David’s death, I received my first phone call from Bob Tredway, his troop commander. I met Bob in person in Washington, D.C., that November. Since then, I’ve also met Luther Russell, who was the first pilot to the scene of the crash and who helped put David on the medevac.

Through contacts like these, by finding out where he was at the end of his life, I’ve been able to realize who David was up until then. I feel close to these men— brothers of my brother—my “new big brothers.”

All those years ago, David had told us, “You’re never alone on a mission.” Now I knew it was true.

Julie Beth Kink

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