Posted by • July 14, 2017
Chuck Vehlow was my guardian at first, although I didn’t know it. He was flying a Cobra helicopter gunship in Vietnam and Laos, protecting his commander’s Huey that I happened to be aboard. He became a source, helping me understand the camaraderie and culture of the Condors, his air cavalry troop that flew into the face of enemy fire, risking everything, losing some, going back day after day because it was their job, their duty and the glue that bound them together.
Decades later, when I began work on a book that would become The Price They Paid: Enduring Wounds of War, Chuck offered insight, perspective and vital detail to my story about how the war changed him and his fellow warriors–and how it followed them home. He was still my source, one of many, but in our several meetings and many telephone interviews and conversations, he evolved into something more, a respected and respectful leader and confidant. He was endlessly patient, teaching me the aeronautics of how helicopters fly, how pilots control them with flameproof-gloved fingers over delicate triggers and radio buttons and which hand or foot controls what. He talked about tactics and how crewmen protected each other. And he recounted in minute detail the shocking explosions, chaotic firefights and horrible loss of fellow warfighters and friends who went down in flames before his eyes. We talked for years about the flawed commander he idolized, a brilliant leader who stumbled badly after he came home. As I learned how so many of his comrades struggled through broken marriages, interrupted careers, the agonies of what we came to call PTSD, I marveled at his quiet devotion to the values he grew up with in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and his unwavering devotion to his wife Katy, their children and grandchildren. He was the all-American kid from nowhere who went to West Point and excelled at sports, at engineering, leadership and friendship. It was after his cancer came back that he finally let on he’d had his own struggle with PTSD, with alcohol and temper and abusive behavior. He didn’t hide it, nor become a champion for its recognition. In the way engineers are taught to analyze and solve complex problems, he dealt with it and moved on, well aware he was fighting another, even more awful ogre. That, too, he managed as a challenge to be conquered. New doctors, different approaches, clinical trials. He was determined to live. As long as three years ago, probably more, he knew it was gaining on him, and he began to scale back some, giving up summers at the lake, then tennis, and more. But his body fought right to the end. Chuck Vehlow lost his last battle on July 8. I will miss him, his wise counsel and quiet but acute attention to every detail, to our mutual commitment to getting it right.