Gary Hechler was a young man studying and playing basketball at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.
Then, suddenly, he was drafted into the Army and sent to fight in Vietnam where he spent most of 1968.
Personally experiencing combat, as the crew chief on a “Huey” helicopter, changed Hechler’s life, while, back at home, the nation was going through a historic and controversial year that included riots in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Kansas City and other big cities, protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
“The time in Vietnam was a trying time for all of us and not just because of the unrest that was back at home,” said Hechler, now an Ogle Township resident.
“It was a truly unique experience, especially for the people that were not career military people. Combat is a terrible thing. But it can be exhilarating at times, especially for the fliers. I tell people that I wouldn’t take a million dollars to do it again, but I wouldn’t give you a million dollars for the experience either.”
Vietnam removed Hechler’s “rose-colored glasses.”
He arrived in Vietnam during September 1967 and worked in maintenance until the Tet Offensive – a coordinated series of attacks carried out by the North Vietnamese – began in January 1968.
Hechler then served as a crew chief until leaving in October 1968, a time during which he witnessed injury and death during “terrifying” combat assaults.
“I was fortunate I was never wounded, but I had every position on my ship at one time or another wounded,” Hechler said. “I was shot down three times. It’s hard to describe the terror. But the training kicks in and you react.”
He continued: “I think the worst was retrieving the KIAs from the field and taking them back to the airfields for deposition. Some of them had been out in the field for days, so they were very well decomposed in that heat and humidity. It was a terrible thing to have to pick the pieces up and carry them in.”
When Hechler returned to the United States, he found a divided nation in which veterans did not receive heroes’ welcomes as they did in the past for World War II and other military conflicts.
“First of all, me, specifically, I was very confused,” Hechler said. “I didn’t understand why they were targeting me, instead of the politicians. I was still of the opinion that the war was just. I’ve since changed my mind. But, back then, I still felt that I’d done the right thing.
“Well – to this day – I still think that I did the right thing, but I think the government was wrong in the way they handled the war.”
Hechler, who returned to his studies at UPJ and eventually graduated from Pitt’s main campus, said he “got in a scrape or two” with anti-war protestors and “deeply resented” draft dodgers who went to Canada and later got pardons from President Jimmy Carter.
Vietnam still affects Hechler’s outlook on life. After learning, years later, how former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara felt, in retrospect, his effort in leading the war was “wrong, terribly wrong,” Hechler was left with the feeling that “we were really sacrificed for basically nothing.”
At 71, Hechler, a retired computer programmer, lives in a rural residence that is about 3.5 miles from his mailbox, calling his decision to live away from people a “product of Vietnam.”
When seeing military personnel getting joyous receptions after fighting wars in the Middle East, Hechler has felt “proud of the job that our troops did over there, but I was a little resentful of the welcome homes they got, compared to what happened to us. I probably shouldn’t be that way, but I thought we were treated grossly unfairly.”
He attended the Vietnam Veterans Recognition Ceremony held at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena in 2015.
“I think we earned the right to have that. … All of us were saying, ‘Yeah, this is fine, except it’s 50 years, too late.’ But, yeah, it was gratifying,” he said.
© 2018 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.)
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