‘I Feel Closer to My Brother’: Families of Fallen Helicopter Pilots Unite with Veterans to Heal
“I feel closer to my brother.”
Julie Kink held back some tears as she addressed a crowd of more than 100 Gold Star families on the morning of August 26, 2015. Kink is the sister of Warrant Officer (WO) David Kink, who died in 1969 when his scout helicopter crashed. He was 19 years old.
The week of August 24 began pretty remarkably in Washington, D.C. The Marriott Wardman hotel was hosting more than 1,000 Vietnam veterans and families for six days as part of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association‘s (VHPA) annual Reunion. Energetic and vibrant, the faces of veterans hugged one another, telling stories from training camp to their favorite flight mission. They came near and far, bringing solidarity. And just as importantly, loved ones of the fallen pilots joined them.
As part of the reunion, they hosted a Gold Star Families breakfast. Brothers, sisters, nephews, sons, and daughters opened up about their personal loss. As they began introducing themselves to one another, sharing stories, the broken pieces in their hearts were slowly being mended. They were meeting people who also experienced losing someone to war. They were not alone, and they were healing.
This year was particularly special. 2015 marks 50 years since the beginning of the Vietnam War.
As Julie Kink finished making opening remarks at the Gold Star Families breakfast, she began passing the mic to the loved ones of the fallen. For many, it was not only their first time at this event, but their first time sharing how Vietnam shaped their lives. One by one, a family member stood. A woman rose to remember her brother. He was “handsome,” “humorous,” and “very smart.” After he died, she admits she was never the same. Tears wallowed in her eyes as she continued to open up to a room who understood her, more than 40 years later.
Towards the end of the breakfast, the sister of 1Lt Eric V. Pulliam grabbed the microphone from Kink. Her voice strong and proud, she smiled through her carefully chosen words. “Because of Eric,” she said, “we strive to support this country and love it.” Pulliam had died four weeks after a helicopter crash in 1969 during a Recon mission. He was the co-pilot. His fellow pilot and mechanic were also killed. The room learned that he loved politics and art. He had gone to college, and he was adamant about serving his country. It inspired his family to “continue to serve [America] as good as” him.
The mission of the VHPA is “To enhance and accredit the cohesiveness, esprit de corps, and traditions of valor of rotary wing aircrews that flew in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam Era.” Their membership is strong, totaling more than 15,000 members. 40,000 helicopter pilots served in the Vietnam War and more than 5,000 were killed.
At this year’s reunion, two Bell-UH1s, better known by its nickname, “Huey,” were placed outside of the Marriott hotel. Excited guests were eager to take pictures. Veterans sat in front of it, occasionally answering questions, keeping a leisurely watch.
The Huey was truly a workforce – a protective a force. It dropped off soldiers in the battlefield, giving faster medical evacuations, and allowed so many heroes the opportunity to do extraordinary things. It helped coin Vietnam the “helicopter war.” Trauma surgeons and nurses were saving more lives, in part due to the Huey’s role in picking up injured soldiers and turning them over to hospitals more efficiently.
“It is a big family,” Kink recalled when asked about the support the VHPA has given her. “The units cross adopted us,” she continued. Today, the veteran helicopter pilots refer to Kink as a “little sister.” Her family has grown.
On Friday, August 28th, the VHPA made a very solemn tribute to the more than 500 helicopter pilots who are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, sacred ground for America’s heroes. They held a tree dedication ceremony in memory of those who gave their lives.
Bob Hesselbein, President of the VHPA spoke of the valor, dignity, and humility of those he had the privilege to speak in front of. Keynote remarks were made by retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Carl H. McNair. Kink also shared a few words about her brother, the relationship she has with Gold Star Families in attendance, and the fulfilling support the Association has given her. Following the ceremony, a wreath was brought to the dedicated tree.
Hueys flew overhead to veterans looking up and shouting, “I’ve heard that sound before!”
In a remembrance left for her brother, Kink said, “I still don’t remember my brother’s voice . . . how long his fingers were . . . how his flight jacket felt. But I’ve learned about my brother and his service in Vietnam by finding his fellow aviators . . . the pilots who shared his last mission, and the families of those who also died. Today, I know not only how David died, but more importantly, how he lived. ”
Today, she is married to a Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor recipient saying, “Vietnam took a lot away from me, but it gave me a lot.”
To learn more about the VHPA, click here.