From Mike McCurry’s “Talk of the Town” column in The Clarendon Courier, Originally published in November 2014
With Veterans Day just past, it is fitting to remember the sacrifices of the veterans who have given so much to our country. It is these sacrifices, after all, that ultimately gave us our freedom.
I recently had the privilege of talking with one such veteran in his home in Clarendon Hills. Sitting in his living room as he remembered his past, I was moved and humbled as he allowed me a tiny glimpse of his sacrifice.
David Antrim left a small town in northwest Wisconsin to accept a full-ride basketball scholarship at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. ROTC was mandatory for Fulton freshmen and sophomores then, and at a time when many young people were heading north for Canada or protesting the Vietnam war, David decided to enlist in the United States Army instead. It was likely sometime between marching and learning military history that he decided to commit to an additional three years of service after graduation. By enlisting early, he was allowed to learn to fly at the University of Missouri. And after graduation, he was able to take the training and fly missions in Vietnam as an officer.
Like clockwork, David’s missions — the deployment and extraction of soldiers behind enemy lines in Huey helicopters — were performed almost routinely, day after day. In the battalion of the 1st Aviation Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, attached Charlie Troop 3/17 Air Cavalry, the day usually started with a meeting to discuss the day’s mission.
The significant personnel of these meetings included a Vietnamese tribal leader, whose job was to help identify hot zones and enemy bunkers so they could be flushed; the Air Mission Control backseat (bilingual Major or Lt. Col.); the Air Mission Commander (Captain or 1st Lt.); the ARVN officer in charge of ground forces; and others.
The day of this particular meeting was hot and sticky. Of course, every day in Vietnam is hot and sticky … but something about this one was different. Today, you could almost smell it in the air that there was going to be trouble.
There was a saying that many of the soldiers knew well: “You have a barrel of luck when you come in.” And for the Huey pilot flying this mission, the barrel was running low. His tour was coming to an end, and he was known as a short-timer. This is the dangerous time of your tour; when your time left in Vietnam is short, it usually means your barrel is nearly empty.
Unfortunately, he would need all the luck he could get for this mission. The AirCav (Air Cavalry) would be hitting their landing zone hard with rockets and smoke grenades, clearing the way for two Huey helicopters to deploy troops.
And hit it they did. With thick smoke billowing on the ground, nothing could be seen until the Huey’s rotor blades cleared the air for the deployment. The intensity was unbearable as the men jumped the three feet from the hovering helicopter to the ground. But as the last of his troops left the chopper, a bullet came in hot, piercing through the windshield and severing the pilot’s headset cord. Alone in the chopper with no communication, he was left to consider how lucky he was to be alive. The cord was just millimeters from his neck.
The extraction didn’t go well. The troops got caught deep in a hot zone. But when the AirCav arrived, they cleared the area once again with heavy firepower and smoke. The Hueys quickly swept in and hovered, waiting to extract the men who came running out of the brush. Some ran, others were carried. And one of them, like so many soldiers of that war, was not whole anymore.
Thankfully, most of the men made it out alive. And thankfully, that pilot officer made it out too. There was just enough left in his barrel … and he lived to tell me the story.
Sitting in David’s living room and hearing his tales — tales of intense violence and fear; tales of not knowing how many days you have left to live; tales of thinking you might not make it home alive — was difficult. But in hearing them, the stories took on new significance.
Talking with David, I learned the true value of the sacrifices these men and women made for our freedom. I learned that we who are spared from enduring the nightmare of war will never fully know the cost of those sacrifices. And I learned why we forever owe David, and his fellow veterans, our heartfelt thanks.
Veterans Day may have passed this year, but it’s never too late to say thank you. When you see one of the many people in our town who have served our country with bravery and honor, I encourage you to give him or her your thanks. And to David and the many other veterans reading this: Thank you for fighting for our freedom.