CAMP ZAMA, Japan – As two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters approached to rescue his battle buddies, then-Sgt. 1st Class Rick Dean was impressed by how closely they circled above before landing together in a tight space.
Dean had only set up the landing zone for one helicopter, not aware that a pair of them would arrive to medically evacuate two of his friends from a dangerous area near Baghdad.
But then they both touched down without hesitation.
“I was unbelievably amazed at the proficiency and skill level of the two crews that landed there,” he recalled, saying he found out later they often respond in pairs. “It was awe-inspiring.”
The incident later convinced Dean to pay it forward. He decided to switch careers from artilleryman to helicopter pilot, a role where he went on to provide similar support for many other military members.
On Friday, U.S. Army Aviation Battalion–Japan honored Dean’s 26-year career as he flew an Army helicopter for the final time. After he landed it at Camp Zama’s Kastner Airfield, his helicopter was sprayed with water and well-wishers doused him in champagne as part of an aviation tradition that dates back to World War II.
Over the course of his service, Dean, now a chief warrant officer 4, had logged 1,900 flight hours in 14 countries, including combat zones. And for the most part, those hours flew right on by.
“Now that you’re at the end, you’re like, ‘Wow, where did the time go?’” he said. “It went pretty fast.”
As a child, Dean dreamed of being in the Army and to follow in the footsteps of his grandfathers who had both served in WWII.
In 1997, he signed up for artillery and then completed additional training as a paratrooper. While stationed in Alaska, he remembered the invigorating experience of jumping out of planes in the winter.
After a deployment to Afghanistan a few years later, Dean returned to combat in 2006 and his tour was extended for the Iraq War troop surge.
Dean, who was a squad leader responsible for several young men, said the sight of helicopters would bring him a sense of relief as they kept an eye on them from above.
Once, while his unit conducted a patrol, Dean said an AH-64 Apache helicopter pilot warned them that a stretch along the dirt path ahead of them had been disturbed, possibly hiding a roadside bomb. The pilot then safely guided the Soldiers around it.
“Just to see the helicopters fly overhead,” he said, “it was something that gave you a lot of confidence to know that somebody’s up there watching over everything.”
As fighting intensified during the deployment, Dean said many Soldiers would still require a medical evacuation, including his battle buddies.
Dean and his unit were on a patrol when one of their vehicles hit an anti-tank mine, causing it to flip over. Two of the Soldiers inside the vehicle were badly wounded but would survive after being quickly flown by helicopter to a medical facility.
Despite his fear of heights, Dean said he aspired to be a pilot after that so he could be there for other Soldiers if needed.
Following flight school, Dean was initially assigned to an aviation unit at Fort Riley, Kansas, that mainly transported dignitaries. But he said he fought to get transferred to a “dust-off” medevac unit and served two more combat tours, where he assisted in numerous lifesaving missions.
“Having been on the ground where we needed medevac, I knew how important it was when I was flying it,” he said. “It’s an incredibly important mission.”
Standing at 6 feet, 3 inches tall, the burly-sized Dean is easily recognizable wherever he goes.
His contributions have also been significant for the aviation battalion here, which conducts general support operations across the U.S. Army Pacific region.
“He is probably one of the most genuinely honest and outgoing people that I’ve ever met,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jake Schmidt, the battalion aviation standardization pilot and senior warrant officer.
“He just has that presence that more or less attracts people to him, especially here in Japan where he is quite bigger than everybody else,” he said, smiling. “Naturally, people like to gravitate toward him.”
Dean, 46, who is an avid hiker, has climbed Mount Fuji seven times in the past three years, and many of those trips he organized to help friends and co-workers scale Japan’s tallest mountain.
As an aviation mission survivability officer, Dean has also trained tactics to crew members on how to safely fly Black Hawks against different threats.
“He is the subject-matter expert when it comes to that and guides us through all that training,” Schmidt said.
While in the cockpit, Dean had the opportunity to support earthquake disaster relief exercises and assault training with Japan Ground Self-Defense Force units.
Schmidt, who was in the same class of Warrant Officer Candidate School as Dean in 2008, said it was great to see a familiar face when he arrived at the battalion a year ago.
“He is going to be missed for sure around here,” Schmidt said. “He does so much stuff for us.”
And during those stressful times, Dean could always be counted on to help lighten the mood thanks to his contagious laugh, Schmidt said.
“To have that relationship with other people that you work with,” he said, “it just goes a long way to making your job more enjoyable.”
Before he officially retires, Dean plans to participate in the Career Skills Program, which allows Soldiers transitioning out of the Army to learn a new trade and improve their civilian employment options.
Like the job change he previously made in the Army, from combat arms to aviation, his next career move will also veer in a new direction.
Dean said he will return to his home state of New Hampshire to do an apprenticeship to learn how to be a blacksmith, a hobby of his that he started in high school.
While it will be his first foray into trying the profession full time, his motive to pursue it remains the same — to help others.
Once fully certified, he hopes to instruct lessons on blacksmithing at retreats that support former military members dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I would like teach them another trade or something else they can try out,” he said.
Life after the Army will be bittersweet for Dean. While he jokingly said he looks forward to no more slideshow briefings, he will miss the camaraderie with his teammates.
“I will definitely stay in touch with as many as I can,” he said. “That’s the hardest part about leaving is not having them around.”
But his departure from the Army will also open the door to a new adventure in his lifelong journey.
“I don’t look at it as an ending,” he said, “but more as ‘on to the next chapter.’”