by Robert B. Robeson
I had 30 seconds to make a life-or-death decision. And I made the wrong choice.
How can I describe how it feels to know you have caused someone’s death — though you did so mistakenly?
The work of war
Da Nang, South Vietnam. Early 1970. It had been a typical Asian day, with the early afternoon sun blazing relentlessly in a cloud-sprinkled sky. I was commander of the 236th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) located at Red Beach, to the northwest of the city on the edge of Da Nang Harbor. Our four-man “dust off” — a medical evacuation helicopter crew — had returned from our third consecutive emergency evacuation mission, two of which had been accomplished under heavy enemy small-arms fire. It had been over three hours of intense action — the kind that makes you tremble, even when you survive with no injuries.
As the aircraft commander of our UH-1H (Huey) helicopter, I was accustomed to scenes of violence that sprouted as spontaneously as mushrooms. I had been in-country eight months; each day and mission was like a foot race with death. Most of the time, death had a head start.
Six times my aircraft had been shot up, and twice I had been shot down during those eight months. Many of my pilots and crew members had been seriously wounded. But I had survived. Our work was physically and emotionally draining. We learned to rely on instinct to keep us alive. We gained a deeper appreciation for prayer. And we quickly learned that war is impersonal and deadly.
A wrong decision
That day I flew the third mission. Afterward, I hovered back to the revetment area at Red Beach where our six helicopters were parked facing picturesque Da Nang Harbor. I landed, rolled back the throttle to “flight idle,” and waited while our jet engine cooled for the required two-minute interval before shutting it down. Our four radios were still on preset frequencies, and the crew was making small talk on the intercom, when 1 heard traffic on our UHF radio. It was a U.S. Marine Corps “Chinook” helicopter at 5,000 feet dropping paratroopers in a training exercise.
I looked up through the “greenhouse” (a tinted window in the cockpit roof) and saw a number of parachutes open as the soldiers began their descent. Their chutes floated here and there across the beach area. I noticed that one was drifting, or was being maneuvered by the paratrooper, out over the water toward a contingent of small boats a mile or so away.
“Sir,” my warrant officer copilot said, “maybe we shouldn’t shut down yet. Maybe we should go out and see what’s happening.”
He was a new pilot, barely in-country a month. I was the unit commander — the old veteran of many battles. The heat, tension, and long hours had taken a toll on my body. We’d flown late the night before, and I knew there would be more action before the day was over.
“No. We need to get something to eat,” I replied. “There’s a lot of action south of here, and we’ll be getting more missions before long. Anyway, marines don’t just dump them out and leave them. It looks like some kind of water-survival training.”
With that, I “chopped” the throttle and completed shutting down the aircraft. The last thing I remember was seeing a lone parachute just above the water in the area where all the boats seemed to have congregated.
The following day I discovered that this parachute belonged to a South Vietnamese lieutenant colonel with seven children. He had drowned. No water-survival training was taking place. The boats I thought were waiting to pick him up were nowhere near where he landed. It had been an optical illusion. The wind had caught his chute and carried him offshore. By just “cranking” on the throttle and flying straight ahead for 30 seconds, I could have had my medic in the water when he hit. We could have saved him.
I had made a mistake that had cost a man his life. Though the marine pilots should have followed the jumpers down to ensure their safety, my decision had cost a wife her husband and seven children their father.
I felt that my combat service to that point consisted of high objectives, expectations, and personal standards. I had never turned down a mission because of weather, terrain, or enemy action. I’d even volunteered to evacuate wounded enemy soldiers from under the fire of their own people.
I had thought I was one of the best of the breed — tough, unflappable. But in the chaotic theater of war, I was now personally responsible for a man’s death, and my self-image deteriorated accordingly. The pain of this awareness was nearly intolerable. Guilt moved in like a vulture, while the memory and body were still warm.
During the following 16 years, seldom did a day go by when my thoughts didn’t return to the scene of that 1970 airborne exercise in Da Nang. Each year that went by seemed to re-ignite the memory of that unfortunate South Vietnamese soldier. The guilt kept returning again and again, like a well-trained homing pigeon.
As a Christian, raised in a minister’s home, I knew God could forgive me for my momentary blunder. But my prayers for forgiveness seemed to be merely empty words. I continued to torture myself and didn’t know what to do about it. I kept this “secret” to myself and continued to pay for it psychologically. The images of that day would consistently return, sometimes clearly, at other times distorted like the crazy-mirror reflections in amusement parks. My suffering persisted in silence for years with a torrent of anger and resentment building inside me.
Early in 1986 I was reading my Bible when this thought came to me: The Bible teaches that God alone is infallible. What makes you so special that you have to be like God — without mistakes?
I had made a human error. Yes, it had cost another human being his existence. But God didn’t expect me to carry this self-blame around for the rest of my life, guilt-ridden and inadequate. I remembered the saying “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”
During that moment of self-realization, I turned my burden over to God. In an instant, tears flooded my eyes; they kept running down my face for a long time. This wasn’t like me; I didn’t show emotion. My guilt and inner turmoil suddenly vanished. I realized at last that no matter how devoted, talented, or involved we believe we are, we can’t turn in an Oscar-winning performance every time out. We are all like the center fielder in baseball: He has nowhere to hide; what happens or comes out into his area is his responsibility. Sometimes the opposition knocks one over his head or the fence. Sometimes he drops the ball in front of his teammates, a national TV audience, and God.
I’d discovered that heartache, pain, and mistakes are a part of every person at one time or another. And we learn some of our finest and most important lessons by going through these narrow passages in life. Finally, I yielded my heavy burden to God. He relieved me of my load and gave me the peace I’d sought.
After 16 years, the war was finally over for me.
About the Author
Capt. Robert B. Robeson (L) and CW2 Timothy J. Yost start their UH-1H helicopter at Red Beach in Da Nang for an emergency medical evacuation mission in early 1970. Photo by Bild am Sonntag.