Vietnam helicopter pilots honored

 

Civil Air Patrol color guard from Eagle Cadet Squadron at Dover Air Force Base presents the American flag for Saturday’s Dustoff Memorial Service in Dover. (Special to Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — More than 900,000 wounded soldiers were evacuated from battlefields during the Vietnam War by UH-1 “Huey” helicopters. That’s hundreds of thousands of sons, brothers, fathers and husbands saved by the courage of the helicopter crews.

Saturday morning, a handful of the men who flew and served on those helicopters were honored in Delaware’s capital city. Gathered at the Veterans Memorial Park, with a Huey looking down on the audience, speakers praised the crews who helped fly nearly 500,000 missions during Vietnam.

“That little green bird up there means so much to me because you guys come in and extracted me out of the jungle and I knew soon as I heard that ‘whop, whop, whop,’ whatever you want to call it, my girl was coming in to get me,” Vietnam Veterans of America Kent County Chapter 850 President Joe Startt Jr. said, struggling to hold back tears. “I just thank you guys again so much for what you have done for me … saving my life.”

More than 100 people turned out to welcome the Vietnam Dustoff Association, a group of former Huey pilots and crew members in town for their national convention.

Delaware is the first state to invite the organization, according to the Dustoff president.

Vietnam War veterans Joe Startt (left) and Paul Davis, of Frederica join in unveiling a memorial stone Saturday. ( Special to Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

The representatives of Dustoff Association, who call themselves “rusty eagles,” sat listening with rapt attention on a gorgeous Saturday morning. Around them stood monuments dedicated to America’s veterans, including the Huey helicopter obtained by Chapter 850 in 2013.

The transport contains two mannequins wearing authentic flight suits donated by Dustoff Association President Steve Vermillion.

“We’re being watched over by one of the most magnificent flying machines that God created on the eighth day,” Mr. Vermillion said.

A retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, he flew 1,450 combat missions in Vietnam, transporting more than 2,200 patients to safety.

Dustoff crews were known for their bravery and dedication, said Dave Skocik, Delaware Veterans Coalition president and the emcee for the event. Mr. Skocik opened the ceremony with a booming cry of “Good morning, Vietnam Dustoff crews,” a reference to the famous scene from the 1987 film “Good Morning, Vietnam.”

During the war, Dustoff crew members had a slogan that emphasized their focus on saving wounded soldiers: “That others may live.” Two-hundred eleven individuals gave their lives attempting to fulfill their duties as “Dustoff boys.”

They are “keepers of America’s liberty,” Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna, proclaimed.

For hundreds of thousands of wounded Americans and South Vietnamese, the sound of a Huey’s rotors was “the sound of life,” Mr. Vermillion said.

Vietnam veterans Lt. Col. (retired) Steven Vermillion (left) with Joe Start, Jr. of Dover. Vermillion, of Puyallup, Washington, was a Huey air ambulance pilot with 1,450 combat missions and evacuated more than 2,200 patients. Mr. Startt was wounded in battle and credits the bravery of a Huey crew in saving his life. (Special to Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

“For most of us, the greatest pinnacle of achievement and satisfaction came early in our lives, and that is the time we spent flying and serving as a crew member on a Dustoff aircraft,” he said.

Veterans like members of the Dustoff Association can teach a lot to teenagers and children today, said Mr. Skocik. Many Vietnam veterans were greeted with disdain when they returned to the United States, and Mr. Skocik feels there’s a similar movement today.

New memorial (foreground) unveiled at Saturday’s Dustoff memorial service in Dover. (Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Mannequin pilots are one of the unique features of the Huey rescue helicopter placed at the Kent County Vietnam Memorial Park. (Special to Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

“These are things that people need to know that you were there and it was honorable to serve, particularly in this time where you have coaches of young people encouraging 8-year-olds to take a knee, much less professional athletes. To me, that is outrageous,” Mr. Skocik said, referencing NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who President Donald Trump blasted as a “son of a bitch” in a speech Friday.

“Turning your back on the nation, on the symbol of the nation, the flag that covered those who lost their lives, that covered our returning heroes, I don’t think they get it,” Mr. Skocik continued, “and I think it’s up to us to pick up the phone, send an email, let people know, write a letter to the editor.”

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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