Andy Perry eyed the large olive green helicopter sitting on the airfield, pushing back his black beret, zipping his military green jacket before climbing gingerly into the vintage cockpit and taking over the controls as if he’d done it countless times.
During the Vietnam War, Perry had piloted this same model of chopper — a Bell UH-1H — as part of the 135 Assault Helicopter Company, an experimental regimen that combined U.S. and Australian forces. Perry was the Australian. The guy currently buckled-in in the back seat of the chopper was Geoffrey Carr — an American who served as Perry’s crew chief for six months during the war — and the guy who had purchased this very chopper nearly two decades back and restored it.
Since the war, the pair of old friends had traded in the jungles of Vietnam for Bud Field Aviation in Hayward where the chopper makes its home in the corner of a vast hangar filled with private planes. A group of volunteers headed by Carr and his son called Huey Vets, fawn over the helicopter, flying it to parades and events and overseeing its constant maintenance.
But to Perry who began visiting the chopper and his old friend a decade back, it’s meant more than a healthy dose of nostalgia — in a way it saved his life.
“I’m clad evidence of how important this machine can be in people’s lives and rehabilitation of their lives,” Perry said, lounging in a chair near the nose of the helicopter.
Following the war Perry returned to Australia and continued to fly commercially. But the memories of heavy combat weighed on him, and he struggled with post traumatic stress syndrome. He drank too much. He stopped flying. He battled his own personal war.
“My life was spiraling down,” Perry admitted, staring off at the chopper, its nose emblazoned with the slogan “Get the bloody job done.”
Carr and Perry lost touch after the war. But one day in 1996 as Carr sat at the breakfast table eating a bowl of cereal, a news report came on TV about an Australian Royal Navy man receiving a long-overdue silver star.
“I go ‘wait a minute,’” Carr said, “that’s Andy!”
The men reunited in Australia. At some point the conversation veered toward the subject of restoring a Huey chopper. In 2003, Carr and another veteran purchased the EMU 309 and returned it to its exact condition from 1968. Knowing his friend was struggling, Carr invited Perry to come to visit — and more than that — he invited him to fly the chopper.
“First time he got in the aircraft and flew together we didn’t even have to say anything,” Carr said. “It was just all those years had just gone away.”
Perry said he was filled with trepidation and doubt up until the moment he slid into the cockpit, looked over the controls and fired it up.
“It was like coming home,” he said. “I thought after 30 years of rehab I was good, but it wasn’t until I came out here and flew again that I knew I was good.”
Carr made it a mission of his group Huey Vets to not only demonstrate the helicopter, but to help veterans struggling with PTSD to heal. Somehow squaring up with the past and its memories helped the veterans to open up.
Perry related a story of how a month back, a veteran he’d served with in Vietnam came to see the chopper and the crew. The veteran had also struggled with PTSD. Perry said during his time at the hangar, the normally quiet veteran stunned his family by telling stories and talking about his war experience. Perry described him as happy. The veteran died a week after the visit.
“He had this cathartic experience with us I suppose,” Perry said. “He climbed in and just stayed there.”
Perry now makes annual trips to the U.S. to work with the Huey Vets, sometimes staying as long as six months. His friendship with Carr has lasted more than 50 years, from battle field to the Bay Area.
“The bonds forged in war are real strong,” Perry said.
But like the bonds between service members, also came a bond forged with a flying machine — a machine of war that ultimately helped Perry find peace.