In 1963 John “Doc” Holladay said his days were spent aboard a Huey helicopter, dropping kids into hell.
Above the jungles of Vietnam, the UH-1D crew chief, who would later graduate from flight school and return to the war as a pilot, became part of a lifeline to the 18 and 19 –year-olds fighting on the front below.
“We brought food, ammunition, mail. We took their wounded out. We took their dead out. Eventually, we came back to take them out of hell,” he said.
Today, as a retired lieutenant colonel, helicopters have become a touchstone for veterans in search of closure and Americans in search of understanding.
Holladay is president of the non-profit group, Friends of Army Aviation. The men and women who volunteer here are former army aviators who travel the country to bring the aircraft into communities. The group charges $50 for a 10-minute ride, a cost that allows the non-profit to barely break even and operate the equipment safely. Every crew member is a non-paid volunteer.
Holladay said the members are tasked with helping Americans understand and appreciate Vietnam War veterans, many of whom were villainized when they finally returned home.
Last year volunteers flew 200 hours on the aircraft and lifted 4,800 passengers into the sky, all over the nation.
“Traveling those far distances is a tremendous logistical nightmare but because we have such a yearning for what we do we feel it is only fair that we take this piece of treasure and we carry it to as many Americans as possible so they can experience what we did,” Holladay said.
“If we can reach the American public and help them not only appreciate what we did but help them respect us as veterans,” he said. “We were mistreated so badly when we came back. Our society has no idea what we went through back then.”
Holladay points out that each of the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. were directly or indirectly affected by the helicopter during the war.
“Because of that it’s only appropriate that when we do our mission we do it by using the aircraft that was the lifeline for soldiers in the field,” he said.
For civilians, the chance to ride in the vintage military aircraft, with the panel doors wide open, is a chance to experience living history.
“This puts them in the shoes of that 18- or 19-year-old kid and experience what they did,” Holladay said.
For veterans, stepping into the aircraft again often brings much needed closure.
“You can tell who the veterans are because they are transforming themselves back 50 years by just looking at that aircraft,” he said.
“We have seen these visits provide closure that is just priceless,” Holladay said. “It provides them with a piece of mind that they have been searching for, for such a long time.”
Seeing that moment is all, Holladay said, the volunteers wish for in return for the countless hours on the road and working on the aircraft.
“When he pops me a crisp salute and shakes my hand and tears are in his eyes - that is all I need. To me that is a priceless moment,” he said. “That moment means more to us than anything you’ll ever know.”