When I turned 11, the Rev. Gearhart of St Stephens Presbyterian Church in Irving called our youth group to a confirmation class. Friends and classmates Carol Triblehorn, Gary Johnson, Cody Land, Nancy Pinkson, Tim Ladisau and I all joined the pastor in the sanctuary.
As he went through the list of what would be expected of us and what we were going to memorize, he stressed we needed to understand the meaning of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed, and the 23rd Psalm as the foundations of our beliefs.
Thus began my walk with “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.”
I continued to grow on my path though high school and early college years. The ‘60s was a tough time for the nation’s youth as values and morals changed. I surrounded my self with like believers, staying active in my school activities and church.
With the Vietnam War in progress, the draft was a dreaded part of many men’s lives. With a very low draft lottery number and a college grade point average that closely matched, I felt it was in my best interest to try and use the experience gained while growing up learning to fly and working on airplanes to my benefit.
The Army was my only choice if I wanted to fly without a college degree. They offered me a chance to join the warrant officer program and go to flight school. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded good at the time.
After a brief stay at Fort Polk, Louisiana, then Fort Benning, Georgia and finally at Fort Walters in Mineral Wells, I found myself on my way with my squadron to Vietnam.
Our FTO (Flight Training Officer) told us: “I can tell you about it, you’ve seen the pictures on TV and in Life magazine. But you’ll never understand it until you’re there.” He was so right. He was also a great spiritual leader, telling us: “There is only one being to fear, The almighty God,” and there was no doubt that he meant it.
Eight months after enlisting, I found myself landing a Bell UH-1D “Huey” helicopter in land that was so far away, Vietnam. Looking at the land, the trees, plants, grass, even the sky and the dirt, it was so different than where I grew up in Irving, Texas. I was terrified, yet comforted by those Bible verses I learned nine years earlier. “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me on the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
Our squadron’s mission was to fly replenishment supplies and troops to LZ’s (Landing Zones) near fire zones. Our return trips were to bring back the weary, injured and the KIA’s.
There is one story from my tour I’d like to share. From our base I was readying my ship for the second mission of the day. The troops began gathering around the chopper as my left seat (in a helicopter the right seat is the pilot and the left is the co-pilot) and I did our final prefight check.
One of those troops was a tall, redheaded farm boy from Iowa. He didn’t look old enough to be wearing that full combat uniform and gear, much less those staff sergeant bars, but neither did this 21-year-old Chief Warrant Officer pilot that was going to fly him to a combat zone.
Honestly, he took me back a bit, asking me if was I a Christian? Saying “absolutely yes,” he respondsed, “It feels so comforting to be among believers. We’ll make it to the end of this war.” Those were his words as he boarded.
As he departed my ship in the fire zone, I felt a tap on the top of my helmet. His voice came over the roar of the engine saying, “Save that seat for me, I’ll need it when I’m done here.”
About a week and a half later it was late in the afternoon. We thought we were through for the day. Members of our squadron were called to a fire zone to pick up several causalities. Arriving at our destination, we were directed to land and power down as there were two officers among the others that needed to be taken to a MASH.
Next to my ship, a Marine first lieutenant was being readied to be loaded and secured on the floor pan of my helicopter. As we waited for the other soldier to be readied for flight transport, I saw lined up away from the triage area four bodybags holding the remains of soldiers.
Glancing over the bags, I recognized a familiar name, the red-headed boy from Iowa.
I asked left seat to help me load him as well as his fellow soldiers. I committed to save him the seat. I wanted to make sure he got to where he could get back home.
I remember feeling how lucky I was and the blessing I had received to be spared. I had a small plate made that I mounted on the instrument panel. It read: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me; Ps23 v4.”
That plaque drew all sorts of attention. I was often called “The Bible Thumper” as I would respond that I was a believer — and maybe you ought to try it.
Three months later I was shipped back to the States and Fort Walters to ready other young pilots. Meeting the old FTO, I told him I would never have come back without the guidance he instilled in us and the faith I accepted as a Christian.
In Vietnam, 7,013 Bell UH-1 helicopters were shipped for the war. Of those, 3,305 were shot down and/or destroyed. Of the men who flew them, 1,073 pilots and 1,103 crewmembers were killed in action.
My experience experience in Vietnam made me a stronger person with a respect for all human life giving me a stronger belief as a Christian and a believer in an almighty God
Today as I stand here my creed remains, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
Michael Sackett is a resident of Red Oak and a frequent contributor to the Waxahachie Daily Light and Midlothian Mirror.