Ron Havens served as a helicopter door gunner and crew chief from September 1966 to May 1968 in Vietnam, where his heroic actions earned him the Soldier’s Medal.
The Army awards the Soldier’s Medal for “heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.”
The 70-year-old veteran of the 11th General Support Aviation Company, 1st Cavalry Division flew in “slick ships” — UH-1B (Huey) helicopters — that carried troops and supplies and unlike their gunship counterparts, were equipped with only self-protective equipment.
“They’re not a gunship,” said Havens, who grew up in Kingston and now lives in Clifford, of the helicopters he flew in. “So they had the door gunners with the M60s (machine gun) where a gunship has got the
pods — you know rocket pods — we didn’t have none of that.”
Havens started out as a door gunner and was trained for the crew chief position by the man he would eventually replace.
The idea was that when an opening came — either through the crew chief rotating back home to the states, or becoming a casualty — the door gunner moved into his position.
“The crew chief doubles as a door gunner, so you got a door gunner on the right and a door gunner on the left side,” he explained.
Besides the M60s, Havens said, each crew member also carried a sidearm.
He and his crew — usually in concert with six or seven other helicopters — conducted missions such as delivering troops to landing zones and “extracting them when they were through.”
Havens said one of their most common missions was “flying engineers, like if there was a bridge somewhere they was gonna build, we’d fly like three or four engineers . . . so they could take a look around, and then we’d end up taking them back.”
They also helped out with medical evacuations (medevacs) when needed.
“A lot of times there was more troops that had to be taken out” than there were dedicated medevac helicopters available, Havens said.
At times, rather than the seven or eight aircraft usually involved, missions involved just one helicopter.
“You never feel safe with just one helicopter,” said Havens. “Because you don’t know where you’re going into.”
That uncertainty meant being prepared for all sorts of possibilities, and on Sep. 18, 1967 — when Havens was just 20 years old — his preparedness paid off.
On that day he saved the lives of all of the men in his crew — the pilot, copilot and door gunner.
Havens said the day he earned the Soldier’s Medal started like any other: “We had a milk run . . . we had to fly out to LZ English (a base located in Bình Dinh Province), and we might have flew the mail out there or something.”
“Our pilot . . . I used to love to fly with him . . . he wanted to take our new co-pilot up and show him autorotations (where the helicopter’s main rotor system turns by the action of air moving up through the rotor, rather than engine power driving the rotor). . . It’s good to practice them,” Havens continued.
During the second pass at autorotation that day, the pilot had the airspeed too high, and the aircraft crashed near the top of a mountain.
The floor of the helicopter buckled, shoving the radio console into Havens’ chest.
Coming to after the crash, Havens heard fuel dripping and the engine running, and opened his eyes to see his door gunner’s boot sticking into the air at the end of his lower leg bones.
After putting a tourniquet on his door gunner’s leg, Havens said, he realized the helicopter was in danger of exploding, and he evacuated.
“I run about 10 feet and said, ‘What am I doing?’” said Havens of his thinking at the time. “And I went back and shut off the fuel.”
He had to crawl underneath the crashed helicopter to get to the fuel shut-off valve.
After that was accomplished, he went to the cockpit to shut off the engine and removed the wreckage of the aircraft’s dashboard in order to extract the pilot from the aircraft.
Together, the two pulled the co-pilot free of the crash.
Havens said the sound of choppers coming in response to the pilot’s call on an emergency radio “was the best sound I’ve heard in my life.”
A Chinook (larger helicopter) had to be called in to lower a cable and lift the wreckage off of the door gunner.
“He lost his leg, but he lived,” Havens said.
Havens explained that because the helicopter crews depended on each other for their very lives, they felt like family.
“I always put it this way — me and my brother, my whole family was really close,” Havens said. “I was really fortunate to have the family I did. I don’t know how to make this sound right, but with them over there — your friends — you become closer than brothers because you watch each other’s back; you gotta depend on him to do his job; you’re away from home . . . you know them personally because they just spill out everything. That’s how close you get.”
There came a point during his tour, Havens said, when North Vietnamese were shooting down helicopters with heat-seeking missiles, which the helicopters couldn’t evade.
“I got to the point where I didn’t want to make friends because you get really close to somebody and then he’s gone,” said Havens.
“I was raised in Kingston and Marlette and didn’t know nothing about violence,” he said. “Ma and Dad always taught us to love everybody and treat everybody good. Then you go in the service and . . .”
Toward the end of his tour, Havens said he started drinking every evening to try to forget what had happened that day.
“I don’t think that I ever saw anybody that wasn’t scared over there,” he said. “And you’d handle your fear the best way you could. I used to drink because if I got drunk (to the point of passing out) then I’d sleep good, and you’d wake up in the morning and you’ve got another mission. But (drinking is) how I got through over there. It just kind of numbs you.”
He said his alcoholism, which continued after he left the Army, adversely affected his approach to fatherhood and ruined his marriage.
“With the way it was, you had a mission one day and two days later you’re home,” said Havens. “It’s hard to switch, and I just kept drinking.”
The VA has found that alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are two of the most prevalent lifetime disorders for Vietnam veterans.
Havens said he quit drinking in 1983 “after all the damage had been done.”
He said it’s hard for him to sort out how much blame to place on himself for his drinking and how much to blame the war.
“We was all kids over there,” said Havens.
Despite any damage Haven’s alcoholism may have done, his family has stuck with him, and Havens is grateful for that.
“My family (son Mark, daughter Heather and ex-wife Priscilla) has been my biggest support group,” he said. “They’ve been with me the whole time, and I love them every day for that.”
Today it’s hard to picture Havens doing the things detailed in his Soldier’s Medal citation.
Effects of Agent Orange exposure have left him with severe respiratory problems — he carries a portable oxygen generator and has struggled with breathing for more than six years.
“When my doctor prescribed (a rescue inhaler) my copay is really high, and I couldn’t afford it. Now thanks to Mark (Zmierski, Tuscola County Veterans Affairs director), I can,” said Havens.
Like many Vietnam-era veterans, Havens says he lost his faith in the VA years ago.
“I love my country, but there’s so much red tape,” he explained.
He started to trust again when he met Zmierski, and now Havens encourages other veterans to contact the Tuscola County VA office.
“I didn’t think I deserved to have any disability because most everyone else went through the same thing I did,” Havens said.
He now has a 100 percent disability rating from the VA for Agent Orange exposure and says he hopes other Vietnam veterans will take the chance and find out what the Tuscola County VA office can do for them.
“What I really want to do is, I want to get word out to other veterans that don’t know about Mark and what he does,” he continued.
“I still don’t trust the VA,” Havens said. “But I trust Mark.”
Caroline Goetze is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org