Special bond: Former elite Air Force unit gathers in Grand County
August 11, 2009
“Hold your Hover… Holdyourhover… Holdyourhover.”
The sentences are swift-delivered, but the voice is calm in the midst of gunfire as a Navy pilot – who managed five days of survival surrounded by the enemy – is hoisted out of a war-engulfed jungle.
In the helicopter, an HH-53 “Jolly Green Giant,” Air Force Pararescuer Billy Brenson had taken a bullet to the knee, but maintains gunfire – 85 bullets a second – as the pilot rescue continues.
“Survivor’s cominginthedoor,” the flight engineer says. “Holdyourhover. He’s close. holdyourhover.”
The engineer directs the chopper pilot in rapid releases.
“Holdyourhover…Survivor’s atthedoor….Survivor’s comingin…. Survivor’s (inaudible). Let’s getthehelloutofhere.”
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It was deemed the most dangerous air-rescue mission of the Vietnam War and featured on the History Channel some four decades later.
In the community room of the Shadow Mountain Yacht Club, Grand Lake, last week, Brenson and fellow Vietnam pararescuers listened to the recording of that mission, a tape Brenson had brought.
For each, the gunfire staccatos and intercommunication between downed pilot, support aircraft and pararescuers was chillingly familiar.
The sounds and visions of such missions shaped them forever.
The men had gathered at the shore of the reservoir at Bill MacDonald’s part-time home for a reunion, one that marks 40 years to the day they began the rigorous training that would sculpt them into an Air Force special operations group, parallel to Navy Seals, the Delta Forces, or the Green Berets.
They would become among the most highly trained emergency trauma specialists in the U.S. military. They endured intense training in free-fall, water and forest parachuting, survival in all terrains and weather, scuba diving, and combat medicine over a period of eight weeks.
In the summer of ’69, 12 young men on MacDonald’s special forces team were worlds away from Woodstock and the Summer of Love. They were competing with themselves and 80,800 other airmen to join the ranks of the elite.
“I kind of label it as the most mentally and physically exhaustive training you could go through,” said Bill Brown of Columbus, Ohio, the man who arranged the team’s reunion.
Those 12 men – nine of whom attended the reunion – would make up the most decorated team of its size in the Vietnam War, garnering four Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, 25 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 100 Air Medals for missions that took place in battle zones of both North and South Vietnam.
Silver Star recipients on the team were Brenson, now a Baptist minister in Texas; Paul Perry, now a contact negotiator of Virginia, and George Webber, a retired postman in California, and the late Dennis Williamson, who was a firefighter in Alaska.
“The Vietnamese were very savvy when we would go to rescue,” said MacDonald, an orthopedic consultant in Palmer Lake. “A lot could speak English, and they captured radios so they could hear the radio transmissions. What they would often do, is if a pilot was down, they would take a smoke grenade and pop it, so we would think it was our pilot. So then the choppers would go in and get him, and they’d shoot the helicopter down.”
Missions involved rescue packages with four rescue escorts such as A-1 Sandys alongside the slow, vulnerable helicopter carrying four pararescuers on board. Pararescuers would descend into jungles, swamps, mountains and forests on a cable and winch. In Vietnam, rescue crews helped save 4,120 lives, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Of those, 2,780 were in combat situations.
On the ground, pararescuers – whose motto is “That Others May Live” – stabilized and helped hoist the injured to safety, often under fire. Called “PJs” – short for para jumpers – they were volunteers and gathered more decorations per-man than any other U.S. Air Force group.
Brown guesses his team members saved a total of about 30 pilots in combat situations.
Erv Petty, now an EMT manager in Alaska, sustained bullets to his hand and arm on Good Friday, April 9, 1971, during a rescue mission. His arm was saved.
“It’s not about heroism, but it’s what you had to do,” he said.
“The support of each other is amazing to see,” said David Clark, a fifth-grade teacher in Florida. “The respect is unusual. We sit in the evening and talk. You ever sit with a crowd of people and everyone talks over you and interrupts? I have never seen that happen here. The respect for what you have to say and the waiting for your turn to speak, it just flows naturally from all of us. And we have a very edgy sense of humor. It’s a huge part of what holds us together.”
The team’s 25-year reunion at Snow Mountain Ranch of the Rockies was ill-attended, with only five showing.
“In one way or another, four or five people have had post-traumatic stress disorder,” Brown said of his reunion mates. “It affects you at different parts of your life. For some reason, when you get older, it’s not as bad when you were younger, so some of the guys didn’t feel they wanted to get together, but this time they did.”
‘It’s about how we bonded’
“It’s like going to the Wall. I can’t go to the Wall,” MacDonald said of the traveling Vietnam Memorial. “I’m sure there was a lot of apprehension with guys coming, not knowing what would come up inside.”
“Maybe here, like nowhere else or with any other group of people, they can really open up,” Clark said, adding that the reunion is less about their time at war, but about the present. “It’s about how we bonded from that time. And we’re supportive of each other now as old guys. We’ve had a great time hearing about how everybody’s life is. So that’s what today’s story is.”
During the week, the men whitewater rafted, went out to dinner, hiked mountains, and took in the scenery. They also learned that the husband-wife divorce rate of members of their team is among the lowest in the military. “I attribute it to understanding the value of life, not just your own, but somebody else’s and the pain and suffering you see people go through,” Brown said.
The men acknowledged that Americans’ reception of today’s military men and women is starkly different from their era. There was no post-war counseling then, and they experienced little respect for the time they served, forcing them to stow away their past.
“The one thing that’s really important is we have brothers and sisters in arms right now that may pay with some blood, or in the darkness of their minds sometime in the future, and we ought to be taking care of those folks for the sacrifice they are making,” said Perry.
“There’s a whole hell of a lot of folks who won’t come back from this one, and who didn’t come back from the last. And who won’t in the future.”
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.