Vet on Southwest
A few weeks ago, I found myself tightly squeezed between a couple on a Southwest airlines flight from Spokane, WA to Denver, CO. Most of us when we enter a plane, do everything in our power to avoid a middle seat. This day however, was an acceptation. On this day, this middle seat was the best seat on the plane. This seat introduced me to a Vietnam vet named Rich. I wrote the words below shortly after my conversation with Rich, so that I could always remember the wisdom, stories, and advice he poured into me on that two-hour flight. You can call these events a ‘coincidence’ or you can choose to see them as a nod from the man upstairs, placing a person in your path at the right time, right place, right when you didn’t know you needed it…
As I write this now, I can’t help but think of all the things that had to go right for my memorable conversation with Rich to have taken place.
- My volleyball team plays a tournament in Pullman, WA but flys out of the Spokane airport.
- Flight gets delayed by several hours. We almost switch our flight with a destination to San Jose but ultimately choose to stay on the original flight.
- Rich makes the decision to take a trip with his wife to Spokane, WA and book this same flight that I was on.
- Out of 150 seats, I choose this middle seat, near the front of the plane to make my connecting flight to Nashville, TN.
Rich is a 73-year-old Vietnam Vet, retired accountant, father to 7, grandpa to 12, and husband to his wife of 55 years. He was a pilot during Vietnam who had been shot down twice by North Vietnamese soldiers. He told me stories of him on daily missions to restock supplies of gear, ammo, and soldiers at U.S and ally bases. Rich choked up as he told me a story of an attempt he made to rescue his fellow soldier who was injured on enemy lines. Rich made a risky move to fly his helicopter toward the solider which unfortunately, resulted in his aircraft being shot down, putting Rich’s life in danger.
“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”- John 15:13 and Rich was willing to do just that. He remembered every second as he told me this story but I could tell it was getting hard for him to continue. He was vividly reliving this memory, he was seeing the helicopter crash again, he heard the soldier’s voice, he felt the pain of wounds, and the beating of his heart. Just this time we weren’t in Vietnam. But he had a way with story-telling that allowed him to transform that Southwest flight with his words, making me feel like I was right there with him in 1971.
I began to tear up when I looked at Rich and visualized this event. They were just a bunch of kids doing a job chosen for them by the draft. A job unlike any other for the sole benefit of our country. Risking their lives daily, hoping to see another day, enough days that would allow them to return home.
I asked Rich about the food they ate in Vietnam. He said he thought it was pretty good but admitted, he never knew any better. He explained growing up with 4 brothers and a limited menu at home living near the poverty line raised him to take what you can get. The weather was tough, he remembered. Hot, humid, and a lot of rain. Rich described the significance of the underground tunnels used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication, supply routes, weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. He also explained the catastrophe that was the creation and use of IEDs by Viet Cong. These underground bombs were strategically planted out of sight to the naked eye, becoming a lethal weapon in the war. “They were terrible, you couldn’t spot them,” Rich explained.
Rich made it very clear to me that he never wanted to kill anyone. He shared a story of how he’d be in his helicopter and he would hold his 40-caliber out the door and shoot nothing. “I don’t even kill spiders in my house,” Rich said. But if it ever came down to the life of his brothers in uniform or the threat to our freedom in land of stars and stripes, you’d have a right to be afraid of Rich. I could tell right then and there that Rich had the biggest heart and love for this country. “You have to fight for what you believe in and you have to work hard in this life,” Rich told me.
He was a very wise man. It was like listening to someone who had the book of life in his hands. Every chapter of your life, he had the answer to how to navigate the challenge. These were a few things he taught me: “be a good person. Invest, prepare for the tough times so don’t run yourself mad feeling unprepared when they come. And I’ll tell you what, this is a great country.” He told me to keep an open mind with what I wanted to do in the future, that “nothing is absolute. But whatever you do, be the best at it.”
Rich amazed me with his stories and his life. How he became an accountant after the war. How he managed at 73 years of age to have absolutely no regrets. How he loved, worked, served, trusted, and provided.
So, what did I take away from this conversation with Rich, the Vietnam vet on my Southwest airlines flight? You have maybe 100 years on this earth, if you’re lucky, and then it’s over. What are you going to do with it? Rich reminded me to chase my dreams and not to limit myself to accomplishing just one thing in this precious life. He taught me to take chances and not to give up when the circumstances are hard. To take care of yourself, your partner, children, career, and do it with grace so that you don’t live in resentment for times you don’t get back. And lastly, Rich reminded me of how lucky we are to live in this country with brave men and women fighting for our freedom.
Thank you for your service, Rich.
In Honor of American Soldiers.
Below is a list of organizations making a difference for veterans.