Vietnam Veteran Ralph Tutrani recently came face-to-face with an unforgettable relic of his military service – the Huey helicopter that he was on when it crash-landed in the jungles of Vietnam on Valentine’s Day, 1969.
With Veterans Day approaching on November 11, Behind the Scenes asked Tutrani to recount his journey from soldier to veteran, and he shared a personal story of healing that has occurred along the way.
Tutrani’s story is a powerful reminder that the veterans who are our colleagues and neighbors are deeply marked by their wartime experiences and sacrifices.
After his military service, Tutrani returned to college and began a career working with software and consulting firms that provided services to the financial services industry. He came to BNY Mellon through the company’s acquisition of PNC Global Investment Services in 2010. Today, Tutrani is a vice president of BNY Mellon Investment Services for Business Excellence, based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. But his military experience is never far from mind.
Tell me about your service in the Vietnam War.
I was 19 years old when I was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967, and I served in Vietnam nearly a year. I was a Specialist 5 with the 1st Cavalry Division, 15th Med Battalion, a Medevac crewmember and the door gunner on Huey No. 174. As Medevac, it was our job to evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefields. If we were called out, we went. No hesitation, regardless of the situation on the ground.
On Valentine’s Day 1969, 10 days before I was scheduled to go home, I was on a mission when our helicopter was hit. My memories of that day are blurry, but I do recall that we began taking fire as soon as we approached the landing zone. By some miracle, I wasn’t injured in the crash itself, but I was shot in the hand later while I was being evacuated with two pilots, Walter McNees and Dave Adams.
Two of my friends and crewmembers, Stephen Schumacher and Gary Dubach, didn’t make it. For me, my greatest burden has been survivor guilt. It’s natural to ask, “Why were Gary and Stephen killed in the crash and not me?” It’s something that’s been very hard to live with all these years.
That is a heavy burden. The helicopter you crashed in was an icon of U.S. military in Vietnam, and it plays a role in your story of healing.
That’s right – the Huey was the workhorse of the Vietnam War. It was used by all military forces for troop transport, medical evacuation and combat assault. Around 7,000 flew in Vietnam, and roughly 1,000 were shot down. Many are still in service, although the Army has switched over to Black Hawks.
A few years ago, a non-profit organization called Light Horse Legacy began searching for a Huey helicopter to turn it into a contemporary piece of art. Light Horse Legacy promotes the treatment and healing of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) suffered by combat veterans from any era, not just the Vietnam War. They wanted an inoperable, Vietnam War-era Huey to use as the centerpiece of their tour to raise awareness about PTSD and the 22 American veterans who take their own lives each day.
Amazingly, Light Horse Legacy found our helicopter in an aircraft boneyard, with “No. 174” marked right there on its tail. Through Army Aviation research, they dug up some of the aircraft’s history, and they were able to trace the survivors of the crash.
Out of the blue, I got a telephone call from Dave Barron, founder of Light Horse Legacy, explaining that they had recovered our chopper. They invited us to a reunion in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day 2016.
What was the reunion like?
It was very powerful and emotional. To touch the helicopter, to touch the seat where I sat as the door gunner, where Gary and Stephen were before they died—it’s very difficult to describe. I saw Walter and Dave, who survived the flight with me, for the first time in 47 years.
I also met Stephen and Gary’s sisters. I was very nervous as to how they would accept me. After all, I was alive and their brothers had been killed. But they were wonderful and treated us all as family. We are still in touch, and we plan to keep it that way.
I’ve been married 43 years, and my wife and I have four children and three grandchildren. To have all of them touch my Huey from that fateful day was something that I never thought would happen.
Huey 174 has been transformed into a beautiful symbol of hope by an artist named Steve Maloney. The art installation is called “Take Me Home, Huey,” which is a wonderful reminder to veterans that they are home now and can begin to let go. I was decorated with a Purple Heart after being wounded in service, and I felt so moved by this project that I wanted my medal to be included in the time capsule in the Huey. That’s where it is right now.
I’ll be joining my Huey, pilots Walter and Dave, and Gary and Steve’s sisters in New York City this week. We’re all marching in the Veteran’s Day parade. This year’s theme celebrates First Responders, and we’re both honored and excited to participate.
You were honorably discharged after you recovered from your crash injuries. How do you remain involved with your fellow veterans today?
I attend Memorial and Veteran’s Day assemblies at BNY Mellon and I encourage employees to support VetNet, our company’s employee resource group dedicated to the professional development of veterans and their families.
As we mark Veterans Day, it is really important to understand that you cannot take young men and women, expose them to the trauma of war and then expect them to easily blend back into everyday life. Veterans need help seeing that they are not alone, that there are people who understand and can relate to what they have been through.