Vietnam vet still in the fight
September 16, 2011
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Sept. 1, 2011) -- A $5 bill transformed Roy Brown's boyhood dream into reality in 1971.
"My mother asked me how I knew I wanted to be a pilot if I'd never flown, so I went to the local airport, paid $5 and rode in a Piper 140 airplane for about 20 minutes," Brown said. "Then I walked right into the Army recruiting office and said, 'Send me to flight school.'"
The recruiter told then-19-year-old Brown about a program called "High School to Flight School." Still in his first semester of college, he knew flight school was a good opportunity, so he took it. His mother had reservations about him going to war, but knew that flight school was something her son would never be afforded any other way.
"He always wanted to be a pilot, even when he was a little boy, playing with (toy) airplanes," his mother, Betty S. Terry-Schmidt, said. "It did not surprise me that he chose to be a pilot."
Following basic training at Fort Polk, La., Brown went on to primary flight school at Fort Walters, Texas, and advanced flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala. Even then, Brown was a force to be reckoned with.
As the custom held on the day of a pilot's first solo flight, fellow students would throw the pilot into the local swimming pool.
"I evaded them successfully for about two hours, which, at that time, I think was a record," Brown said. "Then, of course, I was finally caught and thrown into the pool."
Brown proved to be an exceptional beginner pilot and graduated at the top of his class. This distinction earned him the privilege of choosing which air frame he would fly.
"I knew Vietnam was a hot and muggy place," he said. "There was one aircraft with air conditioning, so I went with the (AH-1) Cobra. Besides that, I knew if somebody shot at me, I could shoot back."
And choosing the Cobra guaranteed Brown would get shot at.
"The question was not 'Who's going to Vietnam?'" he said. "If there were one or two not going to Vietnam, that was the unusual part. Everyone was going to Vietnam -- me especially, when I chose the Cobra. That was 100 percent assurance you were going."
While Brown embraced the adventure on which he was about to embark, his mother struggled to temper her fears with the support she knew her son needed.
"As a mother, I was anxious. Not about him leaving, but about him going into war," Terry-Schmidt said. "I could understand his feelings, though. He was very determined, so I could only back him."
Rather than feeling fear or anxiety about heading to war, Brown chose to think positively.
"We were apprehensive about what could happen in Vietnam," he said. "At the same time, we were young and bold, and we would be the ones to beat the odds."
While Brown beat the odds, not all of his buddies did, nor did the enemy.
Brown said despite the casualties he saw in Vietnam, he never experienced post-traumatic stress disorder the way some veterans have.
"I was young and naive enough that it didn't faze me," he said.
His job as a gun pilot was to take down the enemy by any means necessary, and he did his job.
"Non-military people don't understand, especially back in the days of Vietnam," he said, "and if you can't deal with that part of it, the military may not be a career path you should take."
"He was always a strong young man, and he knew what he had to do," Terry-Schmidt said.
Back at home, Terry-Schmidt had to endure long gaps in communication from Brown, with only the news to keep her informed. Sometimes it would be three weeks or longer before she'd hear from him.
"It would seem like forever," she said. "I was always anxious for his safety."
To keep her mind off the periods of no news from her son, she kept herself occupied.
"At that time, I was working, and I had younger children still at home, so in the daytime, I was busy," she said. "At night time, I would think of him, and of course, I did a lot of praying, trusting that God would take care of him, and my prayers were answered."
Communication then was not like it is today, where Soldiers can have contact with family and friends at most any time of the day, Terry-Schmidt said. This time around, she hears from her son a few times a week.
Improvements in communication have improved not only Soldiers' morale, it has also improved how we fight wars, Brown said.
Forty-one years and three wars -- Vietnam, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom -- later, Brown is now a chief warrant officer five and serves as Task Force Thunder's (159th Combat Aviation Brigade) liaison officer to the 702nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, the C-27J Air Force unit which supports Regional Command -- South.
Throughout his career, he has become qualified on 11 types of aircraft -- both rotary and fixed wing -- some with multiple models, like the UH-1 Huey models B, C, D and H. He has deployed five times.
"I feel more confident with him being in Afghanistan than I did with him in Vietnam because of the experience he has now," Terry-Schmidt said. "I know he is a very careful pilot. He knows his abilities. I know he wishes he was not in Afghanistan, but that's where his duty has led him, and I respect him for that."
Much to his dismay, Brown's duty must come to an end within a few years, but he'll fight it every step of the way.
"I have no desire to retire," he said.
This is because he is simply in love with the Army values.
"Call it patriotism or call it my admiration of the Army's principles -- its organizational objectives and goals, its performance over the decades in areas not only of military success, but what I think of as social equity," Brown said. "But your life's works need to have a higher purpose."