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Vietnam helicopter pilots rebuffed on memorial mission
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Vietnam helicopter pilots rebuffed on memorial mission

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A Middleton man is at the forefront of a fight to establish a memorial in Arlington National Cemetery for Vietnam War helicopter pilots and crew members.

The veterans have designed a memorial that would cover 5 square feet, but last year the Army refused them, saying space for the graves of war dead was a higher priority.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bob Hesselbein said he hopes Congress will overrule the Army and honor the key role played by helicopter personnel in deploying ground troops, providing air cover and evacuating the wounded.

Arlington memorials like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier draw many thousands of visitors and imbue the fields of buried dead with important meaning, Hesselbein said.

“That’s what separates Arlington from other cemeteries,” said Hesselbein, who flew a Cobra gunship in 1972, the year the Army sent him to Vietnam. He later joined the Air Force and became a fighter pilot.

A memorial would help reduce the isolation experienced by reticent Vietnam veterans and family members, said Julie Kink, who was a Middleton 8-year-old in 1969 when her parents received a telegram telling them her older brother David Kink had been hurt in a helicopter crash in Vietnam.

David Kink died 12 days after an explosion brought his helicopter down, but it took many years of gingerly reaching out to veterans of the war — many of whom just wanted to forget — for Julie Kink to feel she understood his service and how he died.

Kink said she was so young that she hardly knew her brother, a skinny 1967 Middleton High School graduate.

In the two decades since she began learning more, she has built a new family, including people like Hesselbein with whom she has worked on the memorial.

“Vietnam was a topic you just didn’t talk about,” she said. “That kept me apart for many years from all these guys that have since become my new big brothers.”

“The most important thing to me is that it’s become more OK to talk about it,” she said. “There was such a disconnect between us Gold Star families and the guys who came back and just put their service on the shelf.”

The memorial can be a needed focal point that will help people talk and connect.

“Anything that can lift that shadow really needs to be done, and it needs to be done now,” she said.

Military rejects memorial

Last year, the Advisory Committee on Arlington National Cemetery deadlocked 3-3 on the memorial. Those in favor said it would be fitting because of the heroism of the crews in saving the lives of military personnel who were injured or pinned down by the enemy in Vietnam. Opponents said Arlington’s primary mission was interment, and it should not become a “monument park.”

Then-Secretary of the Army John McHue said in a letter to the committee that instead of a memorial, the cemetery would place a memorial plaque at the base of a living tree and create a virtual tour focused on the grave sites of pilots.

A spokesman for Army Secretary Eric Fanning referred questions to Arlington National Cemetery, which didn’t respond on Wednesday. A tree has been planted but the pilots association didn’t want the plaque because it could be seen as closing the matter.

Instead, the association is pushing for H.R. 4298, the Vietnam Helicopter Crewmember Memorial Act. More than 60 co-sponsors have signed on, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, is co-author of a Senate version, S. 3447.

Hesselbein said the aging of the Vietnam generation has added urgency to the efforts because the pressure on decision-makers will wane as their numbers wane.

The average age of the approximately 8,900 pilots association members is 72, he said.

“We’ve got to get this done while we are still alive,” Hesselbein said. “When the people who fought in a war have all died, the chances of honoring them goes away with them.”

‘Doing things that were crazy’

Hesselbein grew up in Ohio and was deployed to Vietnam in 1972 as a pilot on an AH-1G Cobra gunship, a helicopter equipped with rockets and machine guns.

The speedy Cobras operated with two pilots and no other crew. They worked in concert with slower, lightly armed scout helicopters that spotted targets, and UH-1 Iroquois helicopters called Hueys that dropped troops into jungle battlegrounds and extracted the wounded.

“I saw guys do things that were crazy to save somebody,” Hesselbein said.

About 12,000 helicopters were operated by the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force in the Vietnam theater of operations.

Of those, 5,086 were destroyed by enemy fire or mishaps related to combat operations, maintenance and weather, said Hesselbein, a past president of the pilots group.

An estimated 2,002 pilots, 2,704 crew members and 532 U.S. military passengers died on UH-1 missions, or roughly 9 percent of the war’s 58,307 recorded fatalities, he said.

After he left the Air Force in 1986, Hesselbein moved to Wisconsin to take a job as a pilot for Northwest Airlines. He is married to Dianne Hesselbein, a Democratic member of the state Assembly.

Bob Hesselbein and his daughter Katie, 15, began tidying up David Kink’s grave in the Sunset Memory Cemetery on Mineral Point Road about 12 years ago.

Extra meaning on Veterans Day

Kink was 19 years old when he graduated from flight school and joined C Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division in Phuoc Vinh on June 23, 1969, his sister said.

By the time he crashed, July 21, 1969, he had logged about 66 hours of combat pilot time, mostly in Hueys. He was co-pilot that day in a light observation helicopter flying at a low altitude searching for signs that the ground had been disturbed by the enemy.

Overhead, a Cobra gunship fired at a target and detonated an unexploded U.S. bomb hidden on the ground, Julie Kink said. The blast slammed into the scout helicopter, killing the pilot and another crew member.

David Kink crawled away from the burning wreck with burns and broken bones. He was evacuated to a Japanese hospital where he died less than two weeks later.

Julie Kink, through her involvement with veterans groups, met James “Mike” Sprayberry, who is the recipient of a Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam in an air cavalry unit, not a pilot or crew member, but a soldier who was dropped into the battlefield with other troops to fight on the ground. They were married in 2012.

David Kink was born on Nov. 11, 1949. His little sister said she thinks about that whenever she sees crowds gathered for Veterans Day.

She said: “I think David’s looking down saying, ‘Look at all the people who came for my birthday.’”

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.

Related to this story

A plan by the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association to place a monument in Arlington National Cemetery received critical support recently. Spearheaded by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bob Hesselbein, of Middleton, the memorial, which has been in the works for years, is close to becoming reality.

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