(First published in the Fannin Sentinel on January 7, 2016.)
It was a cold and rainy October day at the Fannin County Veterans Memorial Park, but the foreboding skies couldn't dampen the excitement in his voice. It was just after the heavy rains had passed, when we were talking to a family from Florida, that we heard him approaching behind us. He was gazing at the Huey with a look of astonishment on his face. We welcomed him to the park and exchanged pleasantries, but his focus remained on the Huey. He almost seemed out of breath as he took it all in. Then he explained: "I'm from North Carolina and we were just driving down the road when we came around the corner and suddenly there was a Huey sitting there! And then I saw the emblem on the nose–I served with the 1st Cav in Vietnam! I didn't even know this was here!"
It's a reaction we've seen countless times over the past year. When the Huey arrived at the veterans park last November, I don't think any of us truly realized just how important this project would become, or what it would mean to so many people. In those early days, all of our attention was focused on how we were going to accomplish the restoration. The Huey was missing a lot of parts and after 35 years of service to our country, it was really showing its age. It was not going to be a quick and easy job.
As word spread about the Huey, people began offering to help work on the helicopter and soon the "Huey Maintenance Platoon" was born. Practically all of the volunteers were veterans, many of whom served in Vietnam, and most had never worked on an aircraft before. Those of us with experience in aircraft maintenance and restoration showed them what needed to be done and how to do it. There were jobs available for everyone, no matter their skill level. And as anyone knows who has worked with veterans, they forged ahead with a sense of teamwork and enthusiasm as only veterans can.
We worked on sunny days and cold days. Other days we worked as long as we could until the rain drove us off. Those driving by could find us on top of ladders, on our backs under the fuselage, hunched over in the cabin, or crammed inside the tailboom. Many stopped to express their appreciation for what we were doing; others would honk and wave as we labored on.
When you look at the Huey today, it's easy to see how all of that hard work paid off. But what isn't easy to see is just how much work was actually required. A summary would be too expansive to list, but literally every inch of the airframe was inspected and repaired as needed. Over 1,000 rusty screws alone were replaced, for example. We found the missing parts as close as Atlanta, and as far away as Washington State. Some were even found on eBay. The main rotor blades came to us all the way from California.
By the end of June, the major work was completed and the Huey was mounted in its place of honor at the veterans park. On the 4th of July, hundreds of people flooded the park for the dedication ceremony. We were later told that it was the largest crowd the park had ever seen.
The Huey has evoked many different emotions since the dedication. We've met Vietnam Veterans who were awestruck by its presence, and we'd listen as they relived the stories that defined their youth. Others slowly walked around the Huey in silence, or stood at the beginning of the walkway and stared. The memories it roused prevented them from coming any closer.
"I hoped I'd never see one of these things again," a man said as he walked up to the Huey one day. "I was a medic in Vietnam and flew a lot of Medevac missions in these." He paused for a moment, then added, "This brings back a lot of bad memories." As he looked inside the cabin, the place where he spent so many days fighting to save the lives of wounded soldiers, we could see it in his eyes as all of those memories came back to him. "The Huey looks great and I really appreciate what you guys have done," he said, "but I can't stay here any longer." The memories still haunted him decades later.
We've watched veterans and their families grow closer at the Huey. We saw a husband climb in the pilots seat, a veteran flyer of two combat tours, and recall harrowing missions his wife never knew about. We watched a father explain to his son how he manned his door gun, and then point to the spot where an enemy bullet once pierced the deck next to his foot. We were moved when a daughter sat in the Huey and gained a better understanding of what her late father, who never talked about the war, experienced in Vietnam. We listened as a grandfather told his grandson how he would jump off the skids when they came into a landing zone, and the relief he always felt by the sound of a Huey coming back again.
We've felt the pain when a veteran spoke about the friends he lost. We've seen the gratitude when a veteran explained–with tears in his eyes–how a Huey saved his life.
The Huey has grown into something larger than any of us. When you look into the eyes of a Vietnam Veteran who is seeing it for the first time, like the gentleman from North Carolina, or the medic still struggling with the war, you understand why.
For all that it symbolizes, the Huey embodies two words every Vietnam Veteran will understand: Welcome Home.
Our Huey flew for the last time in 2005, but it has a new mission now: to honor the fallen, to heal the wounded, and to teach younger generations. On the first Saturday of each month, the Huey is open for display from 12-4. A growing collection of photographs and artifacts from the Vietnam War are displayed in tents next to it. The displays are a reminder so that younger generations will never forget the sacrifices of over 2.7 million Americans who served in Vietnam.
Come by the veterans park on the first Saturday of each month, and be reminded yourself.
UH-1 Huey 70-16446 is located at the Fannin County Veterans Memorial Park in Blue Ridge, Georgia.
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