Four Lessons I Learned From the Army, Outdoors, and My Faith. Pt.1

Recently a friend asked me, “What did you learn from your time in the Army and the outdoors and how does it apply to your Christian life?”  So, after thinking about it, I have come up with four lessons.

Mentoring/Discipleship/Shared Life

I celebrated my 18th birthday at the US Army Rotary Wing Aviation Course and my 20th birthday after returning from Viet Nam with over 1,000 hours of combat flying. I served as an Army helicopter pilot in the 101st Airborne. Our company call sign was Ghost Riders. I was/am Ghost Rider 54. Our company was a highly decorated unit. We flew in I Corps, which was in the mountains along the Demilitarized Zone and Laos. During its time in Viet Nam the company earned two Presidential Unit Citations (for Ripcord and Lam Son 719). At last year’s reunion in D.C. a Pentagon representative said there were only 14 given during the war. Off hand, I can think of four or five men who earned or were recommended for Silver Stars. Most of the pilots earned Distinguished Flying Crosses. The  unit flew in support of troops at Hamburger Hill, the A Shau Valley, Ripcord, and Lam Son 719. All of the major combat events in I Corps during the units time in country.  Through all of these actions we had a low casualty rate. This was not by accident. Helicopter pilots arrived in Viet Nam with about 200 hours. We could fly the aircraft but we were a long way from being real pilots.  The first 350-500 hours of flying in-country were spent as a Peter Pilot. Sitting in the right seat we had to learn the skills to hover with one skid on a ridge line while heavily loaded troops would climb on or off the aircraft. We were expected to hover down 150 feet into jungle landing zones with just a few feet clearance on each side. The pilot would focus on the trees a few feet from the rotor blades while moving the tailboom a foot or two left or right depending on the directions of the crewchief and doorgunner.  We were expected to be able to operate in the mountains with maximum loads under all sorts of conditions. All of this was to be done while taking enemy fire.  An aircraft commander could drop through an opening in the clouds and know where he was by looking at a river valley or hillside.  That did not happen by accident. Aircraft commanders were expected to pass on all of their skills and knowledge to the new guys. Some pilots never made AC because of lack of skills or mental toughness. We all knew that one day we would go home and we would turn our aircraft and crew over to one of the new guys. I wanted my crewchief and gunner to come home safe. That meant I needed to make sure my replacement was well trained. We understood the difference between a guy with wings and a real combat pilot required mentoring. Pilots would enter the company and spend months flying with the experienced AC’s. When the old guys DEROSed (went home) the new “old guys” would pass on the unit traditions, knowledge, and skills to the new “new guys”.  I knew the names of the aircraft commanders who had taught my aircraft commanders. It was an unbroken chain of mentoring. It was more than a transference of information. Ghost Riders believed in a shared live. We did everything together. That is why we are still a part of each others’ lives forty plus years later.

I also learned the importance of this when I was commercial fishing in SE Alaska. I was a good sport fisherman, but then I began long-lining for halibut and trolling for salmon. I had an Oregon dory with a small cabin and I would go out for three to five days at a time. I was OK, but knew I did not know all I needed. One of the top handtrollers in Southeast Alaska was a guy named Mick. I don’t know why Mick took pity on me. I think it was because I was a hard worker. I was usually right in front or behind him pulling out of the anchorage each morning and was one of the last boats to come in to anchor at night. I usually put in 20 hour days. One night Mick invited me over to his boat to mug up. (You grab your coffee, or hot chocolate, mug and sit around the galley stove.) From that night on, I would anchor up, clean my gear, and then sit with Mick as he taught me to rig gear, how to fish, when to fish, everything I needed to know as a fisherman. This was unusual because commercial fishermen are secretive. Mentoring was not a commonly used word at that time, but that was what Mick did.

Jesus’ ministry was one of mentoring. The Bible calls this discipleship. Everyday Peter, James, John, and the others watched Jesus minister and teach. They asked him questions. They watched him serve people. So many of the passages in the Gospels could be described as  serendipitous. A great example was when Jesus was walking through the wheat field on a Sabbath (Matthew 12). He “harvested” and milled the wheat causing the Pharisees to accuse Jesus and the disciples of breaking the Sabbath. Jesus then taught about the purpose of the Sabbath. When you share life, the teacher does not present a canned lesson, he answers the student’s questions as they arise from day to day life.  After Jesus ascended into heaven his enemies commented that it was clear His disciples were just like Jesus. I have been blessed over the years since Viet Nam to be discipled/mentored by older Christians. I learned about being a father, husband, and man through them. In turn I like to think my three sons are better Christian men, husbands and fathers because of their time with me.

I have long said after Viet Nam I knew more about how to be a “real helicopter pilot” than living the Christian life. On one hand I was mentored; on the other I was not. In truth, both settings are war zones. Survival and victory depend on each generation passing on the knowledge and skills to the next.