As a boy I loved to play soldier. I imagined myself as a great hero, and my fantasies included ceremonies of pomp and grandeur during which my country decorated me for courageous feats. As I grew older, I graduated from college and from Army ROTC. I was commissioned as a second lieutenant. I began to realize I might actually be placed in situations that would demand courage, and my hopes of becoming a hero grew and grew.
I attended helicopter pilot training and won my silver wings. I served 22 months in Europe. Then I was assigned as a medical evacuation helicopter pilot in Vietnam. As I waited for the actual transfer orders, my desire for greatness became an obsession.
I soon learned that the real experience of war wasn’t anything like the battlefields of my childhood imagination. The sight and stench of combat made me ill. My inner courage wasn’t as strong as I had thought, and I often found myself scared beyond any fear I had previously known. I sought the Lord as a source of strength, promising that if he preserved my life, I would spend my remaining days serving him in whatever manner he desired.
I still retained a vain hope that somehow I might earn the coveted Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) without serious injury to myself or my crew. The DFC is the mark of an aviator’s display of valor above and beyond the call of duty while under hostile fire. I dreamed of having the medal pinned on my chest.
Three months after I arrived in Vietnam, just about dusk one evening, a radio call came in to the operations office requesting a patient pickup at an insecure landing zone (meaning our forces were still in contact with the enemy).
As our helicopter followed a river through the Tuy Hoa Valley into a mountain pass, we were enveloped in torrential rain. It was extremely difficult to locate the landing area. Soldiers on the ground directed us with a flashlight beam.
We wanted to land up the slope from the casualty to allow those transporting him more clearance from the rotor blade. Turbulent winds whipped across the uneven terrain, causing the chopper to fishtail wildly and aborting our first landing attempt. This also meant the enemy had seen our landing spot and would be preparing to fire on us. A lull in the wind allowed us to land, and enemy tracers ripped like fiery baseballs through the night.
Our friendly forces returned fire. We made a hasty pick-up of the wounded and asked for flares to be shot into the sky to illuminate the surrounding mountains as we departed through lightning, thunder, and heavy rain. A few bursts of enemy ground fire bid us farewell.
As a result of this action, I was recommended for a DFC. But the recommendation was reviewed and downgraded to an Air Medal with a “V” for valor. I was disappointed, but remembered my promise to the Lord and was satisfied that my life had been spared.
About a month later, my crew made another perilous medical evacuation, this time on the side of a 60-degree mountain slope under a double canopy of foliage. This meant that we had to maneuver our helicopter down through the first cover of branches and leaves and over to an opening in the lower canopy of foliage where a hoist could lower a litter for the wounded soldier. Our rotor blades were literally inches from the branches, and the rotor wash of air bouncing off the foliage made hovering critically unstable. Despite these obstacles, the mission was successful, and the crew felt it deserved special recognition. We were once again recommended for the DFC, but again it was lessened to an Air Medal.
I was furious! “Do those people know what it’s like to put your life on the line every day?” I fumed. “They must be crazy to think this kind of flying is part of normal duty!” But in the quietness of my quarters, I remembered the words of my patriarchal blessing, which reminded me that the Holy Ghost would guide me. I thought, “That’s right. The Spirit made this mission and all the other missions, as hazardous as they may have been, possible for me.” And I knew Heavenly Father had protected me. No crew members who had flown with me had ever been harmed. I realized I had a great deal to be thankful for.
With only three months left on my tour of duty, I was called on another hoist rescue. This time it was in the Ashau Valley. Two casualties had to be moved from a dangerous location in another double canopy area. Once again we hovered between the trees like a sitting duck, protected only by cover shots from our troops but threatened by incoming enemy fire. Things went well until we started to bring the second patient up through the lower canopy.
Rifle fire sprayed around us. The crew chief was going to cut the cable, dropping the wounded man back to the ground and to possible death. “No!” I yelled. “Tell me when he’s clear of the trees.” The crew chief kept the litter bearing the wounded man coming up and yelled, “Clear!” as soon as it got above the trees. I moved the helicopter up, then forward, while the wounded man dangled below, slowly being drawn into the cargo area. Finally the terrified soldier was inside and we were on our way back to the base. What an experience! What excitement!
Back on the ground, the crew hugged each other. We were grateful to acknowledge that we were delivered by the power and mercy of God. We also felt sure we would merit a DFC. The recommendation was written up and submitted with assurance that it would be approved.
The awards ceremony was scheduled for July 8, 1968, two days before my departure from the country. I didn’t have to fly any more combat missions, and I had been informed that the DFC had been approved. I was going home and would be a hero, finally receiving the award I had longed for for so long.
Since many of the officers were receiving decorations, the first sergeant was left in charge of the awards formation. Those of us who were recipients were out in front of the other men. I was second in line, next to the detachment commander, who was also receiving a DFC. This was the moment of glory I had been waiting for since childhood. This was the ceremony of grandeur envisioned in the dreams of my youth.
The commanding general’s helicopter touched down. His aide-de-camp scurried from the craft to talk to the first sergeant, as the first sergeant called us all to attention. The two men exchanged comments, then the sergeant took several steps and stood right in front of me. He saluted.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but your DFC has been downgraded. Take your place as fifth in formation.”
Pow! My dream was shattered. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I had to bite my lower lip to make sure I was in the real world and not having a bad dream. I was angry and hurt. Was this the type of gratitude bestowed for dedicated service which I considered above and beyond the call of duty? I did an about face, took two steps forward, made a right face, and moved to my new location as fifth in formation.
As the detachment commander had his Distinguished Flying Cross pinned on his pocket, I had to fight back the tears. I was happy for my boss and his deserved recognition, but I was disappointed at my own situation. When the general came to me, I snapped a salute. He returned it and pinned another Air Medal with a “V” for valor onto my shirt, saying, “Captain, this represents a lot of flying. I respect you for your contribution and congratulate you.” My heart was filled with resentment. How could he do this to me? I choked out a half-hearted “Thank you, sir.” We saluted and he moved on.
As I stood there with those mixed up feelings, I asked the Lord why this had happened. Surely there must be a mistake! It wasn’t fair! Then my spirit became calm as the words of my patriarchal blessing came to mind once again, telling me not to let Satan keep me from growth and development, telling me that the Lord would try me to prove my worth. The Spirit spoke to my soul, telling me that God had kept his promise to me—I was returning to my loved ones unharmed, I still had work to do in this life, and God had preserved my life. “Seek not after your own heart,” the Spirit whispered, “for the praise and rewards of men.”
I have reflected upon these thoughts over the years as I have tried to keep my end of the bargain—that I would serve the Lord with all my heart. I realize that the Savior provided temporal and spiritual rescue for us all, and his reward was a wooden cross and a crown of thorns, with no “V” for valor. What right, then, did I have to feel disappointed that I hadn’t received earthly recognition for saving the lives of a handful of men and women? I am now satisfied that the opportunity to repent of my sins and work out my mortal probation is reward enough for anything I do in this life.
Note: Lieutenant Colonel Peter M. Hansen is now serving as a chaplain in the U.S. Armed Forces.