Monongahela native turns Vietnam helicopter experiences into documentary
A reunion of five servicemen and two newsmen who met decades ago in war-torn Vietnam allowed Robert Brady to release some pent-up emotions and heal some old wounds.
Now he's using that healing experience to help a new generation of veterans deal with the trauma of war in a foreign land.
Although Robert Brady grew up on Lincoln Street in the shadow of the former Monongahela High School, he graduated in 1968 from Mon Valley Catholic High School.
His path to Southeast Asia included a semester at Kent State University, a stint at the U.S. Steel Clairton Works and, in 1969, a draft notice.
Inducted into the U.S. Army, Brady attended helicopter primary flight school at Fort Wolters, Texas, advanced helicopter training at Fort Rucker, Ala., and medical training in San Antonio.
The next stop was Vietnam to fly a medical helicopter — and that's where he met veteran television newsman Morton Dean.
Brady arrived in Vietnam in July 1970 for what became a 13-month tour assigned to the 236th Medical Detachment in Da Nang.
A member of an aeromedical dustoff helicopter unit, Brady was assigned to Hawk Hill, an Army post near the Hoi An River. He spent his tour between Da Nang and Hawk Hill.
“Dustoff” is a callsign for helicopter medical units that stands for Dedicated Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Forces.
Brady's assignment was simple — fly in and pick up wounded GIs. The task was anything but simple.
“We flew entirely different than other helicopters,” Brady said. “Because we were unarmed, we had to learn evasive maneuvers or tactics where we could drop out of the sky.
“We flew at night. And in Vietnam, there was no indirect lighting on the ground and no navigation systems. We had to fly by knowledge of the terrain. It was a whole different world flying at night in Vietnam.”
And it was a high-risk job.
Brady said the red cross on his helicopter was a target for enemy troops.
“We were shot at often. They hit us on a regular basis,” Brady said. “The helicopter was a very durable machine; it could take a lot of hits.”
Although his helicopter was shot out of the sky on a number of occasions, Brady was never wounded – much to his surprise.
“I had bullets go through my clothes and put holes in my helmets,” he said.
The helicopter was made primarily of sheet metal and plastic. When hit by small-arms fire, tiny shards of plastic and steel broke off.
“You'd be peppered with it,” Brady said. “We wore thick clothing and carried tweezers to pick shrapnel out of our skin.”
In the news
Morton Dean entered Brady's world in January 1971.
“I was flying at Hawk Hill, and Morton Dean was a war correspondent with CBS News,” Brady recalled. “He was in transit and his transportation stopped at Hawk Hill. During the time he stopped there, I came flying in with wounded in my helicopter.”
Dean interviewed Brady and asked for and received permission to go on a helicopter mission.
On the flight, Brady picked up three wounded U.S. soldiers about 65 miles west of Hawk Hill.
Approaching the landing site, Brady banked the helicopter steeply. Enemy fire followed and rockets whizzed behind the aircraft. After loading the patients, the helicopter made it safely back to the post.
“It was a pretty typical mission for us, but it was pretty dramatic for the news (crew),” Brady said. “They didn't go on any more missions with us.
“It was such a routine aspect of life. It's what we did. We didn't realize how dramatic or exotic it was.”
Four decades later, Brady heard once more from Dean and cameraman Greg Cooke.
The plan was to have the dustoff pilots meet with the soldiers they picked up on that mission in early 1971.
Even with help from the Pentagon and the Department of the Army, it took the newsmen years to find the people involved with the rescue mission.
The story has taken Brady to Nebraska, Baltimore and Seattle to meet the three guys he picked up that day.
The reunions have been “almost indescribably” emotional, he said.
“Even more than meeting the patients, seeing my co-pilot after 40 years was probably one of the biggest events of my life,” Brady said. “We're old men, and it was like it was yesterday.
“That friendship and bond is so powerful it transcended the years.”
The co-pilot, Dan Stevenson, had worked as a physician at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in North Dakota, but recently left to open a private practice in Washington state.
Dean and Cooke are producing “Finding the Pilot.”
They initially planned to release it in parts on the Internet. But the project is on hold because some cable networks are interested in the documentary.
Discharged from the Army, Brady went home and returned to work in the mill. He moved on to various odd jobs as he tried to get his life back in order.
“I had a couple pretty screwed up years,” Brady said.
He eventually received a degree in science, and in 1980, obtained a law degree from Duquesne University.
He practiced law in Monongahela for awhile and worked as a criminal defense lawyer out of a Washington, Pa., office before retiring at the end of 2011.
Soon after, Brady sold everything, bought a motor home and started driving. He ended up in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he has lived for the past year and a half.
Now receiving treatment for post traumatic stress disorder, Brady said he is happy his life has come full circle after so many years.
His reunion with Dean has made a difference in his life and others.
“As a result of the publicity, I have been able to start helping young vets who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Brady said. “They can learn from my story and (from) the other Vietnam vets.
“It's given me a purpose and a direction. I'm becoming very involved in activities and organizations that reach out to veterans.”
Now 64, Brady had just turned 20 when he started flying dustoff missions in Vietnam.
“When I meet the returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, they seem like children to me, and they're older than I was,” he said.
But they share common experiences related to war — and the memories last.
“It doesn't matter how long of a tour of duty you have, when you take a man or woman and put them in a war zone, it's a life sentence,” Brady said. “They're going to be impacted as a result of those experiences, and that's going to last a lifetime.”
Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or firstname.lastname@example.org.