Some years ago, a local farmer asked me for some help. Bills and crop prices and debt had him over a barrel and we talked about bankruptcy and what it could do to help relieve his situation. He was a big strong man, the way some farmers just naturally are. We were about the same age but he looked so much older.
His situation took about 5 months to get resolved but what I will never forget is the day that I learned that he was a chopper pilot in Vietnam at about the same time as my older brother, Larry, was there. I never would have guessed it.
We were talking about his bankruptcy being over with when he just stopped talking, his voice trailing off while he looked out the window. After a minute he quietly began to talk about what it was like years before, back in Vietnam. It was hard for me to look at this older and much heavier man and try to imagine what he must have looked like back in the days of 1966-'68. Now, he was mostly bald and probably weighed a lot more than he did back then, but like me he had been young once too. Now, he didn't move as quick as he undoubtedly did back in 'Nam either.
But you could tell from the distance in his eyes as he spoke, that he had never really left it all behind him.
He talked about what it was like to fly a chopper in and out of valleys and hills and fire, dropping down as quickly as he could and picking up a wounded soldier or two and getting back out of there, wherever "there" was, as fast as he could. Nothing but God between him and flying bullets.
He said he loved flying helicopters, but he was never in his life as scared as he was in those few minutes between the time just before he would land and when he was back out of the worst of the fire. He said they were the longest minutes of his life. He called it "dodging a lifetime of bullets," scared to death that one of them had his name on it.
He had a dusty old baseball cap in his hand as we talked. It hung loosely in his hand as he gazed aimlessly out the window. It was from some team that didn't really matter at the moment. His eyes were never in the room as he calmly and matter of factly talked of how men died around him and also of those who came back like him.
You could tell he had memories he wished he didn't have. He said the worst feeling he had from the whole war was that every time he'd lift off the ground he knew that while he was getting out of there, he was leaving other boys behind. He'd fly away, he said, his heart pounding loud in his chest, while the fighting went on below him.
After a long while, he stopped talking and we just sat there, not talking at all. I could see that things were going on inside his mind and I just didn't know what to say. I was dumbstruck by this now-gentle giant of a man who had been through hell. Truth be told, I didn't think I had a right to say anything at all. After what seemed like the longest time, both of us returned to the present moment. He never spoke about it again. I never asked.
It's been years now. I don't even remember his name. Probably most of the guys he saved didn't remember it either. I haven't thought of him since then until my older brother sent me a recording he found on the internet, called God's Own Lunatics (click below) that explained what it was like to be one of those foot soldiers on the ground. I clicked on it, listened, and the memory all came back to me.
I recall that he was the son of a local farmer who had gone off to war and came back all grown up - to be his father's son, a farmer again.
We have had several wars since then, and thousands of more American boys and girls have gone out off and most have come back. Some didn't come back at all. Many who did, were changed.
We owe veterans a whole lot more than we will ever be able to repay. If you know someone who served, shake their hand today and thank them. And remember on this Veterans Day that there are lots of vets that aren't around for you to thank, so say thanks to those who still are. Thanks, Dad. And thank you, Larry. Two of the bravest men I have known in my lifetime. And thanks to my Uncle Don and David and all the others too. Veterans.