An estimated 3,000 veterans and family members traveled to Arlington National Cemetery to witness the unveiling of the new memorial for Vietnam War-era helicopter pilots and crewmembers.
The Vietnam Helicopter Pilot and Crewmember Monument is the result of a four-year push from a group of Vietnam veterans.
Frank Lafferty, 75, said the monument was a long time in coming. Lafferty served as a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam war. He made the trip from Florida for the unveiling which turned into a reunion of sorts. Lafferty quickly found several men he served with in the 1st Cavalry Division.
The Arlington Memorial Amphitheater was crowded with men wearing hats, vests and jackets carrying the insignia and names of their military units. Lafferty called the men a “brotherhood” that was not easily broken.
The service lasted for one hour. After the service, bagpipes played while visitors filed past the monument on Memorial Drive for their first look.
The monument stands two and a half feet sqaured. The crowd formed a semicircle around the granite monument while other visitors climbed a nearby hill to get pictures from above.
A bugler played Taps and then, right on cue, the crowd turned to the east to face the sound of helicopter rotor blades approaching. Four UH-1 “Huey” helicopters then flew overhead as the crowd applauded.
A reception near the cemetery’s entrance followed the ceremony next to a UH-1 helicopter on display.
Paul Benoit, 72, drove up from South Carolina for the ceremony and posed next to the helicopter so that his daughter could take his picture. The former Army pilot’s emotions began to show as he stood there, remembering the bonds he shares with his fellow pilots and expressed his happiness that the monument had finally been erected.
On the face of the monument are the words, “In honored memory of the helicopter pilots and crewmembers who gave the full measure of devotion to their nation in the Vietnam War.” It shows the dates 1961-1975.
The Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association rallied for the monument. They state that 11,827 helicopters were operated in Vietnam during the war and 5,086 of them were destroyed. Almost 5,000 pilots and crewmembers were killed.
Julie Kink attended the ceremony in honor of her brother, David. David was only 19 years old when he was killed in a helicopter crash. He had only been in Vietnam for a month before the crash. Julie was 8 years old at the time.
She told the crowd at the ceremony that she was sad whenever she heard a helicopter while growing up. She said her mother always covered her heart and lowered her head whenever she heard that sound – a silent grieving from a mother for her son.
But Julie went on to say that she has learned that the sound of a helicopter meant hope to those who fought in Vietnam because it meant someone was coming with supplies, ammo, or a way out of the battle.
Julie personally contacted hundreds of families to let them know about the monument and the ceremony. Many of them were present that day for the unveiling.
The Vietnam War has been referred to as the “helicopter war” because the helicopters were continuously running missions, making deliveries, rescuing trapped soldiers or evacuating the wounded.
Chau Tran was one of a few South Vietnamese veterans to attend the ceremony. Tran was trained to pilot helicopters in Dothan, Alabama. The 78-year-old man now lives in Virginia. He hoped to find someone he knew at the ceremony.
Arthur Fantroy made the trip from Ohio. He hopes to bring his family to see the monument in the future. The 68-year-old was disappointed that so many died before they had a chance to see the monument but expressed gratitude that he’d been able to see it for himself.
The Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association began lobbying for a monument in 2014. In 2015, there was little traction, and it seemed the idea would never come to fruition.
The association approached former Army Secretary John McHugh and Arlington’s advisory committee. Their idea was declined because the cemetery is running out of space and McHugh argued that the remaining space should be reserved for burials.
In 2016, the group took their request to a House Armed Services subcommittee. The association stuck with the long and difficult process to get results on Capitol Hill. After a deal with the executive director of the Army National Military Cemeteries in which the association agreed to partially fund the memorial, the helicopter pilots and crewmembers of the Vietnam War finally have their monument.