Capitol Commentary; Veterans Day Thoughts

By Fred Benson


There are approximately 20.4 million U.S. veterans living today, three fourths of whom served during wartime: seven million during the Gulf Wars, 5.5 million during Vietnam, 1.5 million during Korea and 600,000 from World War II.

Most combat veterans are reluctant to talk about their wartime experiences, but all have stories to tell. This is a story of just two of them.

They were a strong, effective team. J.D., a young lieutenant, was an extraordinarily talented pilot and his crew chief/door gunner, Sergeant Bayes, had been a South Carolina State Trooper before being drafted for the Vietnam War. Their ship, a 1950s era bubble-nosed plastic traffic helicopter, had two machine guns jury-rigged on the skids, and the crew had no protection beyond individual armored vests.

Their primary mission was to search areas where intelligence reports indicated possible enemy activity. Drawing fire was often how these aerial scouts “discovered” the enemy.

Early morning found them engaged in their usual jocular banter as they walked to the helicopter, but both were aware that this could be a tough day. They were being sent to pin down the location of a North Vietnamese Army unit sighted near a coastal fishing village where a major U.S. air assault was scheduled to take place later that day.

Approaching the area, they test fired their guns and found one of them jammed. J.D. landed on a sand bar in the middle of a large rice paddy and Bayes jumped out to clear the jam. They immediately came under fire from a machine gun hidden at the edge of the paddy. They had found the enemy.

Armed with only a pistol and seven rounds of ammunition, Bayes waved J.D. off and jumped into a four-foot-deep artillery shell hole. As J.D. lifted off, he was hit by a round that creased his skull causing him to lose control of the helicopter. He survived the crash and managed to crawl to a paddy dike where he rested his head, placed his pistol on his chest, hid himself by pulling weeds down over his face, and blacked out.

An hour later, J.D. was startled by voices above him. Looking up through the weeds, he saw three enemy soldiers obviously searching for him. He shot all three and passed out again. It took almost three more hours for ground troops to secure the area and rescue both men. When the troops reached Bayes, he had one bullet left and six enemy bodies were within 20 yards of his shell hole.

As unpleasant as it may be to read this history, it is nevertheless important that U.S. citizens occasionally be reminded of what Veterans lived through — or didn’t.

On the day of the year devoted to honoring our veterans, we pledge not to forget the sacrifices they and their families have made for our nation. But it takes more than a day to ensure that those suffering life-altering physical and emotional wounds are receiving dependable care. About half of the 20.4 million vets living today have been, or are under, Veterans Administration care.

More to the point, The Department of Veterans Affairs recently released a report indicating that 60,000 veterans died by suicide between 2008 and 2017, numbers far outpacing the suicide rate of the non-military population, and far greater than deaths from combat action during the same period. Although the total population of veterans has been declining steadily, suicide rates have continued to grow.

The road to veteran suicide begins with joblessness, and moves relentlessly towards homelessness and drug addiction. While the VA has worked hard to establish emergency assistance for vets in need, many of them are not even aware of the help they could receive.

This is where we all come in.

Bringing a vet to a job or a job to a vet is what is needed and Maine is fortunate to have an organization doing just that. Maine’s Hire-A-Vet campaign has connected 600 employers with over 1,000 veteran-hires since its inception in 2015, and has been recognized as a best practice by the United States Department of Labor.

With MDI employers facing increasingly more serious worker shortages, Maine Hire-a-Vet can help. For more information, contact Steven Roy, Campaign Coordinator, 207-624-5156 or [email protected]. Think this is a risky proposition? How about the risks they took for us? Give it a try. It’s the right thing to do.

Postscript: I was in the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital with J. D. as the medics were preparing him to be air-lifted to Japan. In typical J.D. form, he was yelling at the surgeon to “quit ‘fussing’ with my head and get me back to my unit.” The doctor laughed and said. “its gonna’ be a while.” Fourteen months later J.D. was back flying in Vietnam.

Two months after the incident with J.D., Sgt. Bayes was in another scout ship with a new pilot when they went down. Bayes was the first out of the burning helicopter, but when he realized the pilot was having trouble unlocking his harness, he reached back into the flames and helped the pilot out. I saw him only briefly as he was being evacuated with severe burns. A few years later, climbing the main entrance steps of the Pentagon, I saw Bayes in a civilian suit wearing his perpetual smile. I was thrilled to see him again. As I shook his scarred hand, I could see the straps of a shoulder holster. Turns out he was a bodyguard for the Secretary of Defense.

Fred Benson is a Mount Desert resident who publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter. He is a retired US Army Colonel who commanded infantry and aviation units in Alaska, Vietnam and Korea.

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