Camas man receives war medal, 44 years later

Army veteran recognized for 692 hours of combat flying in Vietnam War

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 

If you go

SATURDAY

■ What: Veterans Parade at Fort Vancouver.

■ When: 11 a.m.

■ Where: Fort Vancouver National Site.

SUNDAY

■ What: Veterans Day Ceremony.

■ When: 11 a.m.

■ Where: Post Cemetery, Fourth Plain Boulevard just east of Interstate 5.

This is the fourth year Aaron Rich has been part of the veterans assembly at his grandson's schools, so the former Army helicopter pilot figured he knew what to expect.

Then two fellow Vietnam veterans surprised him Friday morning at Cascade Middle School, taking care of some unfinished business.

Don Ruskauff and Don Torrini presented Rich with the medal he should have received in 1968.

Ruskauff, who lives in Salem, Ore., commanded the air phase of a Special Forces operation when Rich was shot down and seriously wounded.

Torrini, who lives in Edwardsville, Ill., piloted the rescue helicopter that flew through enemy fire and airlifted Rich from the battlefield.

Forty-four years later, they presented Rich with an Army Air Medal recognizing his 692 hours of combat flying during the Vietnam War. Its ribbon bore a pin with the numeral "8," showing that the Camas resident earned multiple Air Medals.

Also there was crew chief Jim Rodgers, who freed Rich from the pilot's seat of their wrecked helicopter and helped carry him to Torrini's aircraft; he's from Clewiston, Fla.

And five other veterans of the 281st Assault Helicopter Company were part of the surprise: Paul Maledy, St. Charles, Mo.; Ed Haas, Hartford, Conn.; Ken Smith, Sacramento, Calif.; Ken Hamilton, Salem, Ore.; and Fred Mentzer, Kaiser, Ore.

The surprise was orchestrated by Georgia Rich. She had a simple game plan for keeping it a secret, even as her husband was digging up his old military records for her.

"I lied a lot," she said.

He definitely was surprised, Aaron said a few hours after the assembly.

Georgia got the idea while they were watching a film about the Vietnam War, "We Were Soldiers," starring Mel Gibson.

"He got emotional," she said.

Aaron started recalling his own war experiences and then told Georgia that he never did get the Air Medals for all his combat flying.

After consulting with Ruskauff, she went to work gathering Aaron's military records so they could submit the medal request through the office of U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas.

"I just had to do it without Aaron realizing what's going on," she said. So Georgia brought grandson Alejandro (AJ) Navarro — a seventh-grader at Cascade — into the story.

"I lied to Aaron, told him our grandson is doing a report in humanities class on your experience in Vietnam. Do you have anything you could provide he could use?"

He said, "Well, my flight records are in the top of the barn, and my Purple Heart certificate is around here somewhere, and he can have a copy. We get into the barn and find the documents. The stuff was in a cardboard box that was almost destroyed. He goes through all of them," she said. And there was a memory with every item.

The overall story involved Rich's role with the 281st Assault Helicopter Company, which was attached to the 5th Special Forces.

"We would insert five- or six-man reconnaissance teams so they could gather intelligence," Rich said.

On March 2, 1968, some of those troops ran into a large North Vietnamese Army force in South Vietnam's A Shau Valley; aircraft from the 281st were sent to pick them up.

"There was a lot of enemy fire at the time — all over the place," Torrini said.

Rich had just picked up a load of soldiers when a machine gun burst hit the helicopter. A bullet went right through a double-layer of armor plate next to his seat. It went through his left leg, breaking the femur, and then hit his right leg, breaking that femur as well.

(The bullet is still in his right leg, and Rich is on crutches now because of issues with his left leg.)

The impact lifted him out of his seat, Rich said. "My helmet hit the top of the cockpit."

He turned the craft over to his co-pilot, but the UH-1H "Huey" crashed.

Rodgers, the crew chief, said they couldn't get Rich through his cockpit door, so he pulled a quick-release handle on the seat back and pulled Rich out the main door. Then they carried the wounded pilot to the rescue helicopter, where a Special Forces medic was aboard. Without immediate medical care, "Aaron would have bled out," Torrini said.

Torrini couldn't take everybody, however. The men who remained behind took the machine guns off the crashed helicopter, then set up a defensive position while they waited for the next available rescue helicopter.

"That was a typical recovery. We did that all the time," Torrini said.

While flying over thick jungle, "you could be engaged by ground fire as you're bringing somebody in or taking somebody out," Ruskauff said. "That's where it made your skin crawl."

"My longest day was 12 hours and 15 minutes of flying time," the 66-year-old Rich said. "We did hot refueling — we never shut the engine off."

If he needed to relieve himself during a refueling stop, he couldn't even head for a latrine, Rich said. "I stepped on a skid and let it go. Then we'd take off and do it some more."

Under those working conditions, the administrative side of things can get sidetracked, and that's part of what delayed Rich's Air Medal. Another factor was his condition.

"Aaron was wounded so badly, we never got him back to the unit," Ruskauff said. "Under the normal routine, his medals would have caught up with him. It fell through the cracks, and Aaron never got recognition for all the time he flew."

On Friday, eight members of the 281st came from across the country to make up for lost time.

"Aaron was part of our team: a very tight team," Torrini said. "We're a brotherhood until the day we die."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.