Coming Home

Coming Home I was a "Slick" pilot in the 155 from Aug '70 to Jan '71. I wrote this in 1993. Dear Sirs: I offer this story of my coming home from Viet Nam, not out of bitterness, but out of concern for the care and treatment of any American Soldier returning from duty involving hostile action against the United States. In my personal experience, I can see why some Viet Nam Veterans have felt a deep sadness and disappointment in their country for the way they were treated after coming home from the Viet Nam "Conflict." The study of history offers us the opportunity to learn from our past mistakes so that they are not repeated. I hope no United States Soldier ever receives the same treatment as I, and so many others did upon "Coming Home." I live in a Military Town (Columbus, GA.), the home of Fort Benning. I felt moved to write this letter after seeing the wonderful response of my hometown and the Nation to the homecoming of the dead and injured members of the 75th Rangers who have been serving with pride in Somalia. Whether our involvement in Somalia is justified is not the issue I am attempting to address. The outpouring of respect, appreciation, and care of these men offered by the military, the community of Columbus, and the nation has shown that we, the United States, have learned from past mistakes. On June 9, 1971, I was serving in Viet Nam as a United States Army Infantry Captain, Helicopter Pilot. I was assigned to the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company in Phan Rang, South Viet Nam. I was part of a detachment assigned to fly out of Ban Me Thout, former home of the 155 Assault Helicopter Company of which I was a member until it was deactivated. At the time, I was flying a C Model Hughey Gun Ship, call sign "Tiger Shark." Flying out of Ban Me Thout that day, my mission was to escort, with another Gun Ship, two Utility Helicopters that were to pick up twelve South Viet Nam Rangers and a U. S. Army First Lieutenant-Advisor that had been on patrol several days in an area south of Pleiku. I was flying the lead Gun Ship. As the two Utility Helicopters (Slicks) were approaching the ground to land, they came under fire from automatic weapons. The lead Slick pilot called "Taking Fire," aborted his landing approach, and both ships began climbing out as fast and high as possible as they had been taught to do. Due to the "Three Rules of Engagement" that we were forced to operate under, we were not allowed to immediately return fire. Rule #1- You had to be able to see and identify who was doing the shooting. Rule #2- They had to be placing effective enemy fire upon your person or vehicle. Rule #3- You had to call the Regional Province Commander and request permission to return fire. (Exception: If Rule #2 was severe enough, you could disregard the other two rules; an example given was if they were hitting your aircraft.) Since I was flying the lead Gun Ship, it was my job to drop down lower and slower to attract the enemy fire so the other Gun Ship could pinpoint the enemy position. After making a couple of passes over the pickup zone, my helicopter was hit in the engine and transmission causing us to lose the ability to auto rotate and therefore we began to free fall between 500 and 1,000 feet to the ground. The helicopter exploded in the air when we were hit and began to burn, and then exploded a second time when we hit the ground. The Crew Chief and Door Gunner were killed in the crash. The Co-Pilot was critically injured from the crash, as well. I received severe facial lacerations, a crushed second lumbar vertebrae, dislocated shoulder and knee, ribs separated from my sternum, fractured cheek bones, and severed my lower jaw on both sides. I was medivaced to Pleiku and sent to Qui Nhon where I underwent surgery for my lower jaw that included wiring both my jaws together in a closed position. This left me unable to communicate by talking. Nothing could be done for my back except to keep me sedated and still for fear of severing my spinal cord. After several days, I was sent to Okinawa where I had a second operation on my lower jaw. After two weeks in the hospital in Okinawa, I was taken to Walter Reed Hospital in Virginia to wait for transportation to Martin Army Hospital in Fort Benning, Georgia (six miles from home). When the plane was being loaded in Virginia, it was decided that although I was the only patient that could not walk or even sit erectly due to a broken back, it would be easier for the crew flying the medical jet to have me unloaded last so they would then be on their way back to their home base. There were eight patients on board and therefore six takeoffs and landings to be made with me being the last. Each landing and takeoff was excruciatingly painful. I endured it thinking all the time I was getting closer to my wife (to whom I had been married for ten months when I left for Viet Nam), and my family. An Air Force Nurse on the plane apologized for me being last and stated it would save fuel and time for the flight crew. Her apologies did not help but her Demerol did. Meanwhile, my wife and family had only been told by Army officials of the approximate date of my arrival, not the time. I expected not only them to be at the airport but some gathering of high-ranking Officers, maybe even a band (I was so naive because I had seen too many movies of Veterans of previous wars coming home). The only people at Lawson Army Airfield in Fort Benning, GA. to meet my plane was two E4 Ambulance Drivers with orders to pick me up and deliver me to Martin Army Hospital. Though they were warned that I had a broken back, they loaded me into the back of an Army 3/4 Ton Closed Ambulance Truck, closed the doors, and sped for no other reason to the Hospital than they were going on break when they finished delivering me. I cried from pain during the five-mile trip as they sped around curves, slammed on brakes, and roughly shifted gears. Even if I had been able to talk, I could not say anything to them during the trip since I was alone in the back of the truck. When I arrived at the Hospital, the two E4's unloaded my stretcher onto a Hospital gurney, laid my medical records on top of me, and pushed me into a side hallway outside the emergency room. I did not know that, not only had my family not been notified, the two ambulance drivers did not tell anyone else at the hospital that I was there. I lay in that side hallway for two hours until I was finally desperate and able to pull my gurney along the wall to where my feet were out in the main hall to try to attract somebody's attention. Coincidentally, my wife and family gave up on hearing from anyone in the Army about when I would arrive, so they drove to Martin Army Hospital to find out what went wrong. As they were walking down the hallway to the Emergency Room, I heard my wife say at the top of her voice, "I see Bobby's feet!" I can't describe the emotions I felt when I saw them. Naturally they were outraged when after being told by the Army to stay home by the phone so they could be notified of my arrival, they went looking for me on their own and found me where I had laid in that hallway for so long being totally ignored. Things began to happen when my family lost their temper and demanded medical attention for me. After being formally admitted to the Hospital, I was placed in an open ward with five other patients, none of who had ever been out of the United States. I felt it was reasonable, after learning we were the only patients on the Ninth Floor, to request a private room. I was told the private rooms were for Field Grade Officers only. Furthermore, if they put me in a private room, it would be more trouble for the Doctor making his rounds, and for the nurses and orderlies cleaning the areas. This was my homecoming from Viet Nam! I must say at this point, I had the best Medical Doctors in Viet Nam and Okinawa anybody could ask for. But I have a point to make here. I did not ask for the opportunity to be put in a position where I would need a Doctor in Viet Nam or anywhere else in the Army. I WAS DRAFTED! I did not volunteer. I felt I had an obligation to serve my country in the same way my Father and so many other Americans did. That is, when your Country needs you, you owe it to your Country to serve. When my physical injuries healed sufficiently, I submitted my request to the Department of the Army for a Voluntary Release from Active Duty. I received my Honorable Discharge on February 29, 1972. I was again a "Civilian." I entered a family business with my Father operating a Retail Grocery Store that grew to a chain of 13 Grocery Stores. Imagine my surprise when I received by mail one day, five years after getting out of the Army, Orders from The Department of The Army saying that my original Discharge from the Army had been revoked and I had been placed involuntarily on a status of I.R.R. (Individual Ready Reserves) due to the hostage crisis in Iran. I called the D.O.A. and asked for an explanation. I was told the Army had the right to recall me. I told the Major I was talking to "I want nothing more to do with the Army!" Six years later, I received my second (and I hope) last Honorable Discharge. In the late seventies, I was awarded a National Award from the No Greater Love Society, in a ceremony held in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the award was to recognize me as one of "The Outstanding Viet Nam Era Veterans in The United States." I don't feel that I have contributed anything to my Country up to this point in my life worthy of that recognition. I do feel that by writing this story, I will have contributed to future Veterans by making somebody aware that when we have Military Personnel returning from a combat zone, simple thanks would suffice and personal recognition would be better. If we really want them to feel appreciated, let's go out of our way to see to their emotional needs and the needs of their families. Let's not delegate these responsibilities to the lowest ranking man available. (Anything but a hallway that doesn't go anywhere!) I believe that although many young recruits in the military today were either children or not even born during the Viet Nam "Conflict," they and others considering Military Service are aware of the treatment of the Viet Nam Veterans. The Military, like a business, sends a message to their current employees by the way it treats their former employees. It is obvious, by the attention the returning members of the 75th Rangers are getting, times have changed. We have learned! I would like to offer my own "Thank You" to the 75th Rangers and all other Military Service Persons serving in harms way today. Respectfully, Robert E. Goolsby