In October 1973 I was a 22-year-old recently-divorced Vietnam veteran college freshman, living with my parents in Lakeland Florida.
The previous year in Vietnam, from December ’71 to December ’72, I piloted Cobra, Huey and Scout helicopters in a front-line Air Cavalry squadron.
Two months after I arrived in Vietnam my wife (of less than a year) wrote me a ‘Dear John’ letter. She had enrolled in college in Michigan and had many friends, mostly males who opposed the war–one of whom was living with her as a roommate. (Remember, this was the age of Woodstock, peace signs, free love, and militant hippie anti-war demonstrators.) She said she wanted to be free of her marriage vows, free of her obligations.
This tore my heart out. I wrote back, pleading with her to stay in the marriage. (To be honest, she wasn’t the only one to blame. I hadn’t been easy to live with, and we were both very immature.) I went to the base chaplain, hoping to get an emergency leave or compassionate reassignment, but Army policy wouldn’t permit it. Instead, the chaplain offered me counseling so I could continue to fly combat missions during this time of extreme emotional stress.
My father was a Marine drill instructor and Korean war veteran. I never saw him cry. He raised me to believe a man should be un-emotional, like John Wayne, but one night in early 1972 I sat cross-legged on my bed in Phu Loi South Vietnam, crying myself to sleep.
In March ’72 I was flying an OH-6 scout helicopter at treetop level, searching remote hillsides for a reported enemy buildup a few miles East of Phu Loi.
I made a series of tactical mistakes that resulted in my helicopter crashing upside-down over my seat. In the photo below you can see the bloodstains on my twisted seat’s bulletproof armor plate. Also, you can see how the collapsed doorframe tried to decapitate me. The impact knocked me unconscious, and I still don’t remember the moments just before the crash.
My two gunners left me in the wreckage, assuming I was dead and afraid there were enemy nearby.
I awoke, dazed and disoriented, with my face on the jungle floor. The first thing I remember is the wreckage that I was strapped into violently throbbing and gyrating. The turbine engine was still fighting to stay alive, even as the stubs that remained of the four main rotor blades were digging a hole, throwing dirt into the air. Thankfully, the doomed craft hadn’t caught fire–yet.
With difficulty, I finally unlatched my seat belt and crawled forward through the broken windshield. After assessing the situation I went back to the dying chopper, turned off the throttle to put the engine out of its misery, gathered my two crew members who were surprised and happy to see me, and climbed to the top of the hill where a Huey crew rescued us.
The Huey crew took us directly to the Long Binh hospital for evaluation. I suffered a concussion, severe bruising, and cuts in my hand and chin that required stitches. The Army had me back to work as a Huey copilot 3 weeks later.
On May 2, 1972, North Vietnamese soldiers killed my roommate and 5 other Americans, shooting their Huey down with a heat-seeking missile after they extracted a US Army advisor from Quang Tri as it was being overrun. As this happened I was flying another Huey about 3 miles away, helplessly listening to the disaster unfold over my aircraft’s radio.
That night, back at my squadron’s small base, I felt like my life’s potential was being wasted for nothing, and I was sorry that I’d never live to see my grandchildren. I walked out to a private place, looked up into the stars, and prayed: “God, I don’t know you, and I know I’m not worthy, but if you get me out of this I’ll serve you.”As I wrote in What’s Worth Dying For?:
The next 7 months were full of danger, stress, and excitement, but eventually, I survived to return home safely.
Three days after my Vietnam tour ended I stoically went to the county courthouse and divorced my wife. I’m not proud of it, but to this day, that night in Phu Loi is the last time I cried.
The Army assigned me to a Cobra gunship regiment in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell Kentucky. I quickly grew tired of the peacetime Army, so I accepted their offer for an early discharge to civilian life. On July 1, 1973, I rejoined my family in Lakeland.
Keeping My Promise
My dream career was to become either a jet fighter pilot or a nuclear submarine commander. I needed a bachelor’s degree for either of these career paths, so I enrolled as a Natural Sciences major at the nearby Florida Southern College (FSC).
I Had Ignorant Respect for the Bible and God
My cousin Patrick was an Army infantry sergeant. The Vietcong killed him in 1968. It was a closed-casket funeral.
So, in 1971, as I was leaving for my Vietnam gauntlet experience, our Irish-Catholic grandmother thrust a small Bible into my hands, as if somehow it conveyed her prayers for my protection. Though I never opened it in Vietnam, I kept that prayer-soaked Bible as a good luck charm. I also superstitiously wore a Saint Christopher necklace for added luck. I respected God and hoped for his protection, but I didn’t have (or want) a daily relationship with Him at the time.
Since FSC is a United Methodist school its curriculum required students to take both a New Testament and an Old Testament survey course. I had no interest in ‘being preached at,’ but my academic advisor assured me the classes were strictly academic, so I enrolled in the New Testament survey as one of my first semester’s classes.
Experiencing Spiritual Life
As homework, the New Testament survey course required me to read portions of the New Testament, starting with one of the four gospels.
As I read the Gospel of John, something within me stirred and I quickly developed a desire to read more. I went on to read other New Testament books that weren’t even required.
I had a friend, Steve, who wore a fish-shaped lapel pin. When I asked about it he told me it represented the verse where Jesus said,
Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. Matthew 4:19
Over the next few weeks I had many questions, and Steve was patient to answer all of them. I slowly became convinced that the message of the Bible is true, that Jesus died for my sins, that God resurrected and glorified Him, and Jesus now lives eternally to protect all who become His disciples.
As a result, in October 1973 I knelt, alone in my bedroom, repenting of my sins and my sinfulness, and wholly committing myself to follow God’s truth for the rest of my life.
The Spirit of God then reminded me of my foxhole prayer.
I’m thankful that He helped me keep that promise, protecting me during the war and leading me to understand and accept salvation shortly after my return. But I’m also thankful that He didn’t remind me of it until after I repented. He didn’t want my commitment to be done out of obligation to a promise I made under extreme duress… God is such a gentleman!
A few months later, I sat cross-legged on my bed, fervently praying to know whether God wanted me to “go into the ministry.” That night Jesus appeared to me in a dream/vision. He simply said, “Follow Me.”
Since 1973, I’ve done my best to follow Him. This website is my attempt to share some of the things I’ve learned with my fellow disciples who are also following Him to the best of their ability.
In 1975 I met and married Vickie Alexander. She’s been a godsend for my spiritual and natural life. We went through some very difficult times, especially when I couldn’t find work during President Carter’s recession in the late 1970s, but we survived and our relationship is stronger as a result.
Following my graduation from college in 1983 I entered the US Air Force as a lieutenant. Our family experienced many adventurous assignments around the world, including:
- Tyndall Air Force Base (AFB), on the gulf coast of Florida
- Misawa Airbase in Northern Japan
- Mountain Home AFB Idaho
- Peterson AFB in Colorado Springs
- RAF Alconbury UK, just North of London
- Clarkson University in Potsdam NY, near the Canadian border
I retired as a Major in 1998. Since then, our two children married and produced grandchildren.
My passion is searching God’s word to discover how we can help God facilitate and expedite “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as in heaven.” In our spare time, Vickie and I raise chickens, sheep, honeybees, vegetables, and fruit on a 4-acre homestead in central Virginia.
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