WASHINGTON ― The Army has agreed to place a monument in Arlington National Cemetery honoring the memory of helicopter pilots and crews lost in the Vietnam War, capping a three-year campaign by veterans of what is often called “the helicopter war.”
Veterans groups representing helicopter flight crews who served in Vietnam approached Congress for legislation mandating the memorial after they were turned down by then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh, but with bipartisan bills proceeding through both House and Senate, the Army agreed to negotiate a settlement with the vets.
Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Bob Hesselbein, who flew helicopters in Vietnam as a 19-year-old Cobra gunship pilot, spearheaded the effort on behalf of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association and the Vietnam Helicopter Crew Member Association. He testified before Congress that at least 5,238 Americans, 9 percent of all U.S. troops killed in the war, were pilots, crew chiefs, door gunners or medics who died aboard their aircraft during the war from 1961-1975.
The memorial, which will be the first to recognize the sacrifice of helicopter crews from all services, was designed and will be installed and maintained by private veterans organizations. It portrays a UH-1 Huey helicopter approaching a safe landing with its machine guns stowed pointing downward. The Huey, with its distinctive “whop, whop, whop” rotor sound, remains the iconic symbol of the war for hundreds of thousands of troops carried into, out of or rescued from combat zones.
The dedication will read: “In honored memory of the helicopter pilots and crew members who gave the full measure of devotion to their nation in the Vietnam War 1961-1975.”
Hesselbein told Congress last year that, like many combat veterans eligible for burial in the nation’s best-known and most-visited national cemetery, he “would gladly surrender my place in exchange for installing this important and overdue memorial to our brothers who gave their very young lives in service to the nation.”
He won’t have to do that. Among the terms of the agreement reached between the Army and the vets, the gray stone monument will be placed along Arlington’s Memorial Drive, used by thousands of visitors daily to the Tomb of the Unknowns, memorials to the lost Challenger and Columbia shuttle astronauts and other monuments to famous leaders and military heroes. The stone, to be cut from Vermont granite, will be 22 inches high, 21 inches from front to back and 32 inches wide at the base.
The legislation, introduced in the House by Rep. Mark Amodei, Republican of Nevada, and Senator Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, had collected numerous co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle and was proceeding toward eventual passage when Karen Durham-Aguilera, the new director of Army National Cemeteries, proposed in March that the veterans pressing for installation of the monument meet to seek a quicker solution.
Hesselbein said those negotiations led to the settlement that should result in the monument being in place next fall, perhaps years earlier than would happen if the group pursued the legislative path.