A lesson from a Vietnam Veteran after half a century of grief and guilt

I know this is longer than most blog posts – in fact, it’s more of a story than a post, but this past Sunday was the 50th anniversary of an event that took place half-way around the world and changed the lives of some brave young men forever. So please indulge me and read about these soldiers and their story.

On most days, the English classrooms at Thornton Academy in Saco, Maine are filled with noisy and chaotic high school students. It’s a place where homework is being finished or collected, gossip is traded about students and teachers, and there seems to be a constant buzz about the latest viral video or social media post. Today was different. In one of the classrooms, a group of 28 juniors and seniors were going to connect face-to-face, via the internet, with a man who was sent to war three decades before they were even born. They were going to speak with a former soldier and helicopter crew chief who might be able to explain to them what it was like to live in a time when students, not much older than they were, faced seemingly impossible choices. The decisions he and others made at that time changed their lives forever. He wanted to teach them about that and share something of his experiences.

Russ Warriner, a decorated Vietnam Veteran, an author, and a former resident of Old Orchard Beach, Maine was going to try to explain what it was like to be 17 or 18 years old and be faced with the choice of entering the draft pool (and in all likelihood, being assigned to an infantry unit in the Army) or enlisting in the service. In either case, it was more than likely that Warriner would end up serving his country in Vietnam. He was going to speak to the class about the decisions he and his generation made, and what happened when the men and women who served returned home.

It was almost time to connect with the 68-year-old veteran living in Florida, and the teacher fiddled with the controls on the large TV screen that consumed a large portion of the back wall of the classroom. He connected cables and switches from the screen to his laptop, shut off half the lights in the room, and assured the restless students that he knew what he was doing. He’d be ready in a minute. As if on cue, the screen of the laptop was projected to the television and a blinking green symbol flashed, indicating an Internet call was coming in. Warriner was nothing if not prompt.

When the teacher accepted the call, a man with a rugged, stoic face filled the screen. His eyes were searching for some indication the two groups could see each other. He was searching for his students. It had been at least 40 years since he last wore his country’s uniform, but in many ways, he still carried himself as a soldier. He was trim and his full head of graying hair was cut short and neat.  The mustache he now sported was not the bushy or the unruly sort, but rather it was more of the neatly trimmed pencil thin variety worn by someone who spent time each day making sure his appearance passed his own version of an inspection. For Warriner, everything was in order. He now occasionally wore eyeglasses (a concession to age), but the polo shirt he chose for today’s lesson had logos on it that were connected with veterans’ groups and the creases on his khaki colored pants were regulation sharp. He smiled, looking for a familiar face and said, “hello.” His voice was deep and throaty and yet there was a soft quality to his words and demeanor. It was an odd combination for a man who had seen so much.

The class and Warriner exchanged greetings and the former staff sergeant told them a bit about the talk he was going to give.

“If I get a little emotional about some of this, I apologize,” he said. “Your teacher probably told you a about these events, but sometimes they still affect me. I’d like to tell you how it started, how I got there and then if we have time, a story or two about the men who served with me.”

For the next hour, the students sat silently in the room and listened as this veteran, living in a retirement community in Florida with his fourth wife, explained how someone who was about two years older than they were now ended up fighting for his country, his friends, and his life.

Warriner was born to working-class parents in the town of Williamsburg, Mass. He went to the local trade school and had ideas of working after graduation as a mechanic on heavy equipment of some sort, perhaps even the Connecticut railroad. But by the time he left school (1966), the country was at war in Vietnam and “things were heating up.”

“I knew I had a high draft number,” he said. “My brother was already in the service, so I went to see what I could do.”

The local recruiter for the Army told him he could work on tanks or other heavy equipment, but that was considered a hazardous duty. If he worked on helicopters, there was a good chance would be assigned to a unit at one of the airbases. He told the young Warriner that he’d be away from the front lines. “That sounded good to me,” he said. “He told me it would be safer.”

Warriner took the necessary exams and passed the physical that would allow him to enter the aviation section of the Army. His basic training took place at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and then he was sent to Fort Rucker, Alabama. There he earned the Army’s certification as an aviation mechanic specializing in helicopters, and in September 1967 he was given orders to report to the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV). The next stop for the 19-year-old Warriner was an air base in Saigon, and from there he would be assigned to an aerial unit of the 1st Cavalry, most likely in the north. Within a week he was transferred from the large airfield in Saigon and told to hitch a ride to one of the forward bases. He’d been assigned to an aerial rocket artillery battery. There he would learn his craft.

Almost four months later, on Dec. 11, 1967, his birthday, he completed his training at Camp Evans, a 3-acre clear patch of dirt carved out of the jungle near the city of Hue. He’d been training as a door-gunner and learning what it took to keep the UH-1C helicopters in the air, and now he was awarded the designation of crew chief and assigned to a specific helicopter and a group of pilots. He was a 20-year-old crew chief and door gunner, a proud member of the 1st Cavalry, 20th Aerial Rocket Artillery, 2nd Battalion, Charlie Battery. He and his unit were assigned to fight in one of the most dangerous areas of South Vietnam, only 10-15 miles from the borders of Laos and North Vietnam.

Warriner’s Huey crew regularly flew wire-guided missile missions throughout the jungle in support of troops who were fighting on the ground. “When a Ranger or Marine unit got pinned down, they’d call us and we’d send in missiles to try and keep the enemy away so they could get away or finish the job,” he said. As a crew chief, Warriner made sure all of the mechanical equipment worked properly in the air, and from the cargo bay in the back, he would man the M60 machine gun and protect his ship as it sailed through the humid night sky.

“There were open doors on both sides and depending on the which way we banked, I would clip into the left or right doorframe,” he said. “I wanted to be on the side that was facing the ground.”

There were only three men in his crew – two pilots and a crew chief – and the chief had to make sure the Huey got them to the fight and brought them home. Warriner said that after 100 hours of flight time, he would routinely take his “bird” out of service for an airworthiness inspection, and in the early days of February 1968, he had to do just that.

The Tet offensive started late in January 1968 and Warriner’s unit received orders almost around the clock to fly support missions. When his crew was designated as the “hot section” (the next section to fly) they had to be in the air within two minutes after receiving their orders.

“We were flying all the time,” he said. “As one (helicopter) was landing, another one was taking off.”

On Feb. 4, Warriner took his aircraft out of service and the two pilots he normally flew with were temporarily assigned to another helicopter. They were both good pilots, and as a crew, they had become closer than blood relatives.

If needed, they would fly with another crew chief while Warriner inspected their ship. He’d fly with them again when they returned to the base and his inspection was finished.

Warriner told the students that he had begun his work and after removing the metal inspection plates from his aircraft, the horns surrounding the base sounded. The piercing alarm signified an alert, a new mission, and the sound penetrated to the bone. The turbine engine on one of the replacement helicopters immediately spooled up and, with a screwdriver in his hand, Warriner watched his friends take off without him.

Warrant Officers Thomas Hooper and Robert Connelly (the pilots Warriner normally flew with) navigated away from the base, joining another Huey from their unit. As a flight of two, they took off to support an Army Ranger unit that was trying to take a hill near the city of Hue. Enemy soldiers surrounded the Rangers, and as they called for help, it became clear the elite infantry unit had no means of escape. The two Hueys were going to try to fire some missiles into the area and clear a path for them. They needed to give the Rangers a way out.

“They had been gone for about an hour when the mission horns sounded again,” Warriner said. “But this time, the battery commander came running and he said he was flying. That wasn’t a good sign.”

Warriner’s two friends and the replacement aircraft they were commanding had taken fire from the enemy. The crew was now missing.

“I should have been with them,” he said. “But I might not be talking to you today if I had.”

Because the battle raged on, Warriner and the men in Charlie Battery were not able to find Connelly and Hooper, and it wasn’t until several days later that they located the missing Huey. “It was resting on its side,” Warriner said quietly and removed his glasses.

“Hooper and the crew chief and the extra gunner were found at the crash site, dead, but Connelly was missing,” Warriner said. His voice trailed off as he explained what happened to his crew.

According to Warriner, the infantry units fighting in the area found tracks leading away from the downed aircraft and they thought Connelly was alive and probably had been captured and taken as a prisoner of war.

“They got him, and he was taken north,” Warriner said. “To the Hanoi Hilton.”

Warriner explained that Bobby Connelly, the pilot who survived and was captured by the North Vietnamese Army, spent the remainder of the war in Hanoi as a prisoner and was only released when the peace treaty between the United States and Vietnam was signed in 1973.

“It would be 44 years before I saw him again,” Warriner said. “But I never forgot him.”

Warriner left the Army after serving for more than nine years, with an extended tour of duty in Vietnam and one more in Korea.

“I felt like I had to fly. That was my job,” he said. Warriner tried the best he could to deal with the memories and demons he carried with him. But often he was unable to cope with the guilt and stress.

“After a while, I just tried to push everyone away,” he said. “But that didn’t help either.”

After dealing with the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for more than 30 years, Warriner wanted to find a way to honor all of the men and women who served their country. Living in Maine, and retired, he petitioned Gov. Paul LePage and asked him to declare the third Saturday in September POW/MIA day in the state of Maine, a day dedicated to the memory of all service personnel who were taken prisoner or listed as Missing in Action, no matter when conflict or war occurred. To his surprise, LePage agreed, and he signed a proclamation stating the day would be marked on the official calendar for the state.

With the document in hand and a community willing to help, Warriner worked for a year to organize a POW/MIA event to be held at the minor league baseball park in Old Orchard Beach. Dignitaries, speakers, and veterans of all ages were invited to the first of what he hoped would become an annual event. Warriner wanted to dedicate the weekend’s activities to someone who served with him or served during his time in Vietnam. He immediately thought of his friend Bobby Connelly.

During the summer of 2012, Warriner found out that Connelly was living in California with his wife and three children, who were all born after he returned home from Vietnam. From a friend of a friend, Warriner got Connelly’s home phone number and decided to call him.

“It was emotional,” Warriner said. “But we talked for hours. I couldn’t believe it was him on the phone.”

Warriner asked his friend if it would be OK to dedicate the event to him, and would he consider coming to Maine to speak about veterans.

Connelly, who had never publicly spoken about his time in captivity, agreed to come to the event and talk about his time in the Army and his time as a prisoner of war. Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012, Warriner and four other men from his unit in Vietnam waited at the Portland, Maine airport to finally see their friend and fellow soldier again. All of the men who waited at the bottom of the escalator for arriving flights strained for a glimpse of their friend. Each man was now in his 60s and they lived throughout the United States, but for one brief moment, they were together again. They hugged, cried, and laughed at each other – they were young men again, young men who would do anything to bring their friends home.

Warriner explained to the students that he has since moved to Florida for health reasons, but he still stays in touch with Connelly and many of the other men who served with him.

“It helps me,” he said, and then after a short pause he added, “I think it helps them too.”

The allotted time for the talk was quickly drawing to a close and the teacher, who had been silent for nearly an hour, interrupted and told the students they would have to wrap up their conversation, but wondered if there were any last-minute questions or comments.

Sitting at his kitchen table 1,500 miles away, Warriner nodded in the direction of the class and said he’d try to answer as best he could.

A thin, 16-year-old girl with bright eyes and a serious expression was sitting near the edge of the class and she quickly raised her hand.

“Go ahead Abby,” the teacher said.

Abby sat a little straighter and tilted her head more toward the center of the room so Warriner could see her on his screen in Florida.

“I wanted to thank you for your service,” she said. Within seconds, Warriner’s eyes filled with nearly five decades of emotion and he turned in the direction of the young girl.

“Your story is amazing,” she said and now noticed the reaction her words had caused. Her eyes filled with tears too.

“Thank you,” she said. Warriner watched her and scratched the place where his hairline connected to his forehead. He turned again toward the teacher and simply said, “You’re welcome.” Seconds later an electronic bell sounded and it was time for the class to move on. The lesson was over.


David Arenstam

About David Arenstam

Originally from away, but here to stay - Maine is my home and I love writing stories about the people and places from my end of the state. I am a teacher and writer and my first novel, "Homecoming: A Soldier's Story of Loyalty, Courage, and Redemption" is available now at www.BrysonTaylorPublishing.com