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Two soldiers reunite in San Diego after surviving shots to the helmet on Veterans Day 1969

Pilot Steven Brown, right, is shown here after he got shot in the helmet on a mission in Vietnam on Nov. 11, 1969. Pilot Bobby Baker is at left.

It was Veterans Day in 1969 when Army Capt. Dennis Schoville took to the South Vietnamese skies over the Mekong Delta. He’d been in the Army two years and had already been wounded twice. This, however, would be his last mission.

Schoville flew his OH-6A helicopter along the outskirts of the U Minh Forest on the western edge of the delta. Alongside him flew another helicopter piloted by Bobby Baker, a warrant officer, and PFC Steven Brown, who was Baker’s observer and door gunner.

Spotting their enemy’s position, Schoville told his own observer to drop yellow smoke on them so that air support could target them. That observer missed and Schoville turned around to try the drop again.

This time, the North Vietnamese fighters were ready. They hit his helicopter, flying at about 50 feet, with small arms fire. Schoville was shot through a leg and through his helmet.

His helicopter went down in a rice paddy.

Baker’s helicopter, still airborne, began providing cover fire for Schoville and his observer. Brown, while using the door gun, accidentally leaned on some flight controls, causing his helicopter to tilt nose-down.

Just then another enemy round went through Brown’s helmet and into Baker’s. The helmets saved them and later Schoville and his observer were rescued.

Monday, in Miramar, Schoville and Brown reflected on that day 50 years ago at a Veterans Day ceremony.

Schoville, who lives in San Diego and serves as chairman of the Miramar National Cemetery Support Foundation, honored Brown in an emotional moment from the podium.

“After 50 years of reflection, I still can’t reconcile as to why others died and I did not,” Schoville said Monday. “But … the personnel I served with … we would lay our lives down for each other, no questions asked.”

The coincidence of this 50th anniversary on Veterans Day was not lost on either man.

“For me, it brings back memories of the guys who didn’t come home,” said Brown, who lives in Chula Vista. “That’s what I think about the most.”

Brown said he believes that his mistake that day, when he leaned on the controls, probably saved his life.

“Had we been sitting up, like we should’ve been … it was a center punch,” Brown said of the helmet shots.

Schoville said earlier, on Friday, that he probably was in that rice patty for five minutes, but it “felt like a lifetime.”

He was treated at a MASH hospital and was told that three of the four soldiers in the two helicopters that day had taken shots to their helmets and all survived.

But before he could learn their names or verify the story, he was sent to a Navy hospital in Great Lakes, Illinois.

“I heard it, but I didn’t know who they were, I couldn’t remember,” Schoville told the Union-Tribune. “I didn’t know if it was true. I moved on.”

Schoville was medically retired from the Army and went on to earn a law degree and a successful legal career. He kept the helmet with the holes, but for a long time it languished in a closet, he said.

Brown said he didn’t stay in Vietnam much longer. In December 1969, he too was shot and his helicopter shot down. He left the Army soon after.

It wasn’t until 2018, when Schoville told his story to the Union-Tribune at a Veterans Day ceremony at Miramar National Cemetery, that other pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

Brown read Schoville’s story and recognized his name from that Veterans Day 49 years before.

“After that (incident), we landed at a different base to refuel and Denny was gone,” Brown said. “And that was the last I knew of him, until I read the article last year.”

Brown and Schoville reunited last year following that event and, on Monday, the 50th anniversary of the incident, both men attended the same Miramar Veterans Day ceremony — this time Brown was Schoville’s guest.

Schoville told their story to the crowd and asked Brown to stand and be recognized.

Brown received sustained applause, as did Schoville when he wrapped up his speech.

Neither man knows what happened to Baker, the third man who caught a bullet with his helmet that day. Schoville said he tried to track him down, but Baker was too common name.

Schoville said this Veteran’s Day reminds him not to take his life or his family for granted.

“For me personally, the 50th is a day for me to reflect and truly be thankful for having 50 more years of life, when I had close friends and service members, fellow pilots, that didn’t survive,” he said. “I don’t view myself as a hero; I view myself as a thankful survivor.”

Schoville’s helmet is on display at the Veterans Museum at Balboa Park.


© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune