FORT HOOD — After getting a gunshot wound under his left arm and shrapnel in his right elbow, Maj. Charles Sweeney heard the shuttering of helicopter rotors in the Tay Ninh province along the Cambodian border.
The retired major knew he’d be dead if it wasn’t for the Huey helicopter pilot who medevaced him to safety during the Vietnam War.
“That was one of the best sounds I ever heard,” Sweeney said while listening to the distinct “whop, whop, whop” of the UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopters for the last time as the three remaining active-duty choppers retired Saturday at a commemorative airlift at Robert Gray Army Airfield. “That meant you might live another day. That was our life in the infantry.”
Col. Neil Hersey, 21st Cavalry Brigade commander, said the bittersweet ceremony was to honor an iconic piece of Army equipment that proved its worth by serving the military for about 57 years.
“I doubt that any piece of military machinery has seen such longevity with the possible exception of the B-52 (bomber),” he said.
Retired Col. J.B. West, who logged about 2,000 hours of flight time on the Huey, said the most rewarding part of his career as a pilot during the war was picking up wounded service members.
“You never knew who they were, but you just think that maybe someday you might have a chance to meet one of them, and maybe they did something worthwhile in their life and maybe you had something to do with saving their life,” West said. “When you make a medevac under fire and you get somebody out, that’s inwardly all the reward you need.”
West made a lot of good and sad memories during his time in the Nui Ba Den mountains of Vietnam, including when the helicopter he was piloting was shot down.
“When you fly like that you don’t have time to get scared because you’re trained on emergency procedures,” he said. “So when something happens, you just react.”
West flew his first Huey during flight school, when they were just starting to be used by the military and said it was indescribable to fly over Fort Hood for about 10 minutes with other pilots and veterans to bid the helicopters farewell during their historic last flight.
“I just wanted to come down to see them fly off,” West said, listening to the rotor blades cranking before boarding the aircraft for the final time. “Old soldiers have to go out of the field and old equipment has to go out of the field.”
Sweeney felt at home back on the Huey, saying the only thing missing was his rifle.
“It just brought back the old memories,” he said, adding it’s great to be a part of the historic event.
“I can now go to museums and look and say I used to be on one of those,” he said. “Now I guess I’m a museum piece, too.”
He was grateful for the Hueys, which to him meant leading a longer life.
“I realized it when I got to Vietnam that (the Hueys) meant everything to us,” he said. “Everything we got came off that bird — food, clothing, shelter, ammunition, water — and when we needed to be medevaced out, it took us out.”