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My 90 year old Vietnam Veteran Father Remembers One Pilot’s Selflessness

This is a combat memory from a “chronologically superior” Army Ranger.

When you turn 90 years old, you tend to reflect on the people in your life that set an example for you. What follows is a combat memory from a “chronologically superior” Army Ranger.

On the battlefield during my two tours in Vietnam, I witnessed many acts of Selflessness. One in particular occurred in late May 1970. I was a battalion commander, and our Area of Operation was in Cambodia. The attack into Cambodia was designed to stop the flow of North Vietnamese supplies along the now famous Ho Chi Minh Trail.

As the lead American unit during this offensive, we sent our scout platoon on a reconnaissance mission to verify intelligence on an enemy cache site. The platoon got into a firefight with the enemy, and the scout platoon leader was seriously wounded. While in my command-and-control helicopter checking on our four rifle companies, the call came over the radio for a medevac helicopter to pick up the wounded lieutenant.

I heard the operations officer say, “The medevac has gone to refuel and will be at your location in about one hour.”

“We cannot wait for an hour,” the medic responded. “I am having difficulty stopping the bleeding, and he may be dead in an hour.”

I got on the intercom to the pilot and asked him if we could land and pick up our wounded officer. This helicopter had top-secret electronics equipment and the pilots were responsible for the security of that equipment. So it was the pilot’s call to take the risk, not mine. He had the option of saying, “Sir, we cannot afford to have the enemy capture this equipment. I am responsible for it.”

Instead he simply said, “Sir, I am at your command. If you tell me that you want me to land this helicopter down there, I will do my best to put it where you need it to be.” At that point I called the operations officer and told him that we were in the area and we were coming in to pick up the wounded scout platoon leader.

The pilot put the helicopter down in the only place clear of trees. It was on the side of a steep hill where he could get only one skid on solid ground. I jumped out on the left side of the helicopter. When I hit the ground, I spotted a North Vietnamese soldier come out of the woods about fifty yards away. He was carrying a rocket propelled grenade launcher (RPG). He went to one knee, aiming the RPG at the helicopter as I pulled the trigger of my M16.

Unfortunately, he fired the RPG right before the M16 rounds hit him. It looked like the missile was flying right at me. However, it passed just to my left, went under the tail boom of the helicopter, and exploded. I immediately lost my hearing, and for a period of three days my men had to write me messages if they had information I needed to know. A few small pieces of shrapnel punctured the tail boom. The pilot checked the chopper for any serious damages. Finding none, we loaded up the wounded officer, took off, and delivered him to the nearest aid station across the border in South Vietnam. The gravely wounded platoon leader survived, thanks to the selfless decisions of that pilot.

In our book, Becoming a Leader of Character, my son (David) and I define Selflessness as “putting the needs of others before your own needs, desires, or convenience.”

That pilot did not have to agree to land his chopper on the side of a hill under fire. He had every right to protect himself and the top-secret equipment he was responsible for. He performed a selfless act because he believed it was his Duty to help save that platoon leader, even at the cost of his own life. It may not have been his job to act as an evacuation chopper, but he recognized that he had a moral obligation to try to help save the life of a fellow soldier.

Notice, he did not worry about the consequences if that vehicle he was responsible for had been destroyed or captured. He recognized that he was not bigger than the situation. He saw that the needs of another human being outweighed his own. His act of Selflessness took Courage and a sense of Duty that we should try to emulate as Leaders of Character.

It was one of the greatest honors of my (Dave) life to write Becoming a Leader of Character with my father, General (R) James L. Anderson. The lessons I speak about and continue to write about I first learned from him. Last week was his 90th birthday. Over 100 people came to a party we held for him. Some of those people traveled from across the country to honor him and thank him. The words they used to describe my father included wisdom, Humility, Integrity, and kindness. It was a great celebration for a Leader of Character.

In each chapter of Becoming a Leader of Character, my father tells a story about combat in Vietnam and I tell a story about combat in the business world. Those stories always relate back to exercising one of the Six Habits of Character. This story was adapted from the chapter on Selflessness.

General (R) James L. Anderson served 42 years on active duty in the Army. He graduated from West Point with the Class of 1956. He was the honor graduate from his Army Ranger School class and later became an instructor there. He served two tours in Vietnam. His final 24 years on active duty were spent as the Head of the Department of Physical Education at West Point. He earned a Silver Star, 2 Bronze Stars for Valor, and a Purple Heart. Watch a video about The General here:


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