Medevac helicopter aims to help veterans heal

Eric Berla stands with the medevac helicopter he flew during the Vietnam War — now transformed into a artistic display. The helicopter is on display through Sunday at the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum downtown. Photo: Kristi Foster

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Thanks to Eric Berla, a University City dentist and former helicopter pilot in Vietnam, area veterans of his war and their families can take steps toward healing their invisible wounds of half a century.

Through noon Sunday, they can visit Take Me Home Huey (takemehomehuey.org), a Vietnam-era medical evacuation helicopter that will be on display around the clock at the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, 1315 Chestnut St. in downtown St. Louis.

Sponsors are the city of St. Louis and Light Horse Legacy, Inc., a non-profit to help veterans recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Take Me Home Huey is dedicated to the 2,709,918 Americans who served in Vietnam and never received a welcome home,” Light Horse Legacy’s press release says. “It is a colorful ambassador — literally and figuratively — and a catalyst for conversations for veterans from all conflicts.”

The Huey has been decorated with emblems of units that served in Vietnam, so all who were in that conflict can identify with the aircraft.

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Steve Maloney, an artist in Palm Springs, Calif., developed the design after intense consultations with Berla, who was troubled by Maloney’s initial plan for painting the Huey. Berla thought Maloney’s original plan was not as respectful as it should be.

Berla gave the artist two books to read about the Vietnam War: “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, and “Chickenhawk”  by Robert Mason.

“He read them. I feel I honored the crew by influencing Steve to change his design,” Berla says. “To his credit, he listened and changed…. He absorbed both the technical and emotional stuff. He was brilliant.”

Maloney also added a medical red cross on the Huey’s nose, which was important to Berla.

 

Helicopter with curative powers

How does a helicopter-turned-into-art help vets with their recovery? 

For one thing, seeing a Huey like the ones that ferried troops into and out of battle can prompt those former soldiers and Marines to talk about their experiences, which they often keep locked up inside themselves. 

The “airplane” on display prompted Berla get in touch with a profound part of his young adult life and has improved his relationship with his wife when his war experiences come up, he and Bev Berla say.

The man who came up with the idea of hauling the Huey around the country on a lowboy hitched to a truck believes the now-decorated aircraft has curative powers for vets.

“Soldiers have an emotional attachment to aircraft,” says Dave Barron, who founded Light Horse Legacy Inc. in 2008 as a way to help vets recover from the trauma of their war experiences. “This is across the board for the Huey. It was what took them into battle and to safely return. It brought them mail and warm beer. It was what took them home.”

Barron learned this first hand a couple of years ago. He was near Bakersfield, Calif., with the Huey loaded on a truck. He got a flat tire and had no way to fix it.

A man with a Marine Vietnam veteran’s decal on his window stopped to help. Before he left, Barron said, the man kneeled in front of the helicopter, placed his hand on the nose, closed his eyes and bowed his head. 

Then he got up and drove away.

“That taught me that there is an emotional attachment to aircraft that is almost universal,” Barron says.

 

A machine with a mission

To explain this complicated story: Berla, a member of Central Reform Congregation, was a medical evacuation — medevac — pilot with the First Cavalry Division in South Vietnam north of Saigon during one of the most violent periods of the war, 1968. 

He has moved on, with his wife, Bev, to create a comfortable home in University City, rear two children and develop a dental practice, as well as teach.

Today their home is filled with the laughter of grandchildren and the barking of two affectionate dogs.

Lingering in the back of Berla’s mind for almost 50 years, however, were his memories of flying a lightly armed Huey into hot landing zones to evacuate wounded First Cav soldiers. 

As Berla related in a previous article in the Light (http://bit.ly/eric-berla) medevac crews were like litter carriers in World Wars I and II: mostly unarmed and risking their lives in extremely dangerous battlefields to save their injured comrades.

Berla refused to fly gunships because he didn’t want to kill anyone, so the medevac missions were his choice.

Many pilots like Berla died or were injured. He was not, though his Huey once took a round that went through his clothing yet did not hurt him.

Enter Barron, a retired Los Angeles County fire fighter who’d spent seven years in the Army as a helicopter crew chief. Today Barron lives in the Phoenix area.

He is a man with a mission — to help veterans, particularly of the Vietnam War, and their families. 

Barron did not serve in Vietnam.  He did two tours in Korea. But he firmly believes veterans are well suited to help veterans.

He has hauled Take Me Home Huey to about 12 cities across the United States. The helicopter is to be in the Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11 in New York City, he said. It is the country’s largest such parade.

Berla will be there too, as will others associated with flying and refurbishing the helicopter.

Where will Barron take the Huey next?

“The helicopter takes us where it wants us to go,” he says, a bit mysteriously.

 

Making a profound connection

Last year, Barron was surfing the internet to learn the history of the Huey he was partly restoring after rescuing it from a dump near his home. It had been returned to the states and served in various roles before being thrown away, Berla says.

Barron wanted to turn into a work of art that could be displayed across the United States.

While exploring the internet, looking at Army records, the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association’s website (vhpa.org) and tracking the serial number of the Huey, Barron found the Light’s 2014 article on Berla and bingo!

He had found a key member of the crew.

Around a year ago, he called Berla at his office, got him on the phone, and a crucial connection developed. 

They talked, two strangers joined by a common interest. One thing led to another. And Take Me Home Huey is in St. Louis through noon Sunday because Berla lives here.

During this past Memorial Day weekend, Take Me Home Huey was at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., south of Washington, D.C.

A local TV station covered the display. A man who had flown with the Cav saw the report while watching the news. He joined the group.

Within a few hours, the surviving men who had been crew members, plus Eric and Bev, were together at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on The Mall in Washington. It was a very emotional reunion, Eric and Bev both said in an interview.

Two men died when the Huey crashed on Feb. 14, 1969. They were killed by the rotating blade of the downed aircraft.

Berla was no longer a pilot with the First Cav. He had moved to another base and was ferrying high-ranking officers and VIPs around the war zone. 

Yet to this day, he says, he feels survivor’s guilt because two of his former crew died.

At the reunion in Washington and Quantico also were members of the two dead crewmen’s families. 

The surviving crew, Barron and the families went to the Vietnam Memorial and left a panel from Take Me Home Huey at the base of the wall, beneath the names of the two crew members who died on Valentine’s Day in 1969.

Such is the power, the Berlas and Barron believe, of Take Me Home Huey to help heal the long-smoldering wounds of that war long ago and half a world away.