Honor is a belated 'Welcome Home'

Robert L. Baird of Lantana sees his induction into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame for Valor Class of 2012 as the welcome home he didn’t get when he returned from Vietnam in 1968.

The induction ceremony was held May 4 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.

Baird, a medical helicopter pilot in Vietnam who was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal for Valor and Purple Heart, grew up in the Ohio towns of Campbell and Poland. 

He owns a home inspection and pest control company, and was sworn into office this month as a board member on Lantana’s Fresh Water Supply District #6 board of directors.

“I am proud of my service in Vietnam. I am also proud to have served my country in the military service and consider it an honor to have done so,” said Baird.

Talking about his Vietnam experience, he said: “We may have gone to war for our country but we fought for each other. I feel my first tour in Vietnam was one of my best years. What I hated about Vietnam was coming home … to an ungrateful nation that spit on us, ridiculed us and refused to hire Vietnam veterans.

“It was kind of like winning that big high school football championship game and then having the home crowd boo you as you left the field of valor. I am very glad the warriors coming home today are received appropriately better,” Baird said.

From June 1967 to June 1968 he served in the Army’s 283rd Medical Detachment as a helicopter ambulance pilot. His call sign was Dust Off 37.

“As Dust Off pilots, it was our job to pick the wounded up on the battlefield and take them to a medical facility for lifesaving treatment,” he said.

Dust Off has it’s own acronym: Dedicated Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Forces.

Baird said that at first he handed out a business card to the wounded he picked up telling them they had been picked up by “Dust Off 37” and signed Mr. Baird.

“I have always wondered if I would ever meet one of the men some day, but I have not,” he said. He asked that his email and phone number be included. They are [email protected] and 817-691-9721.

He enlisted in the Army in March 1966 as a private and retired in April 1986 as a lieutenant colonel. He was assigned to helicopter-pilot flight school, graduating in April 1967, and promoted to warrant officer. When he returned from Vietnam, he received a direct commission to second lieutenant in the Field Artillery.

His second tour in Vietnam, from June 1970 to June 1971, was with the 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division, flying combat missions and as squadron safety officer managing its aircraft accident-prevention program.

During his two tours, he was shot down seven times.

Baird, 66, is a 1964 graduate of Poland Seminary High School in Poland, Ohio. He received a bachelor’s in general studies from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1974 and a master’s degree in business administration from Boston University.

“During the Tet Offensive in 1968, which we won decisively, the enemy had initially overrun many cities. In Kontum, a Special Forces outpost was surrounded and under intense enemy fire. There were wounded that would die if they did not get immediate medical attention. I got the wounded out and to the medical attention they needed. None died. This was a good day,” Baird said.

“During the initial stages of the Battle for Dak To in November 1967, we did not have many landing zones to use in evacuating the wounded. We had to hoist the wounded up through the jungle. On Nov. 17, 1967, I had maneuvered my helicopter to the top of the jungle trees about 175 feet above the ground at Hill 1338 just south of the Dak To airstrip. The hoist was being lowered when we took automatic-weapons fire. Over 50 rounds hit the aircraft, and over 30 rounds went through the cockpit. All aircraft systems were destroyed, and we crashed at the base of the mountain. All crew members were wounded. That was a bad day,” he said.

His description of the Dust Off pilot’s job and when he was wounded was matter-of-fact.

However, it was anything but, said Cheryl Fries, a producer and writer for Arrowhead Films, which produced “In the Shadow of the Blade,” a 2004 documentary film produced and directed by Patrick and Cheryl Fries. The focus of the film is a restored UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopter on a flight to reunite Vietnam War veterans and families of the dead three decades after the war and elicit stories of Americans affected by the war.

During Baird’s first tour, he was part of an extraordinary mission that saved almost 1 million lives, said Fries, who became acquainted with Baird while making the documentary. As a Dust Off pilot, Baird flew unarmed medical-rescue helicopters into the bullets, through the night, and in all kinds of weather to save lives. He and his fellow Dust Off veterans put their own lives at risk every day to save others, including American troops, civilians and even, at times, the enemy, she said.

From May 1962 to March 1973, 496,573 Dust Off missions were flown and 900,000 casualties were airlifted. If not for the use of MEDEVAC helicopters, historians believe that U.S. killed-in-action rates in Vietnam might have exceeded those of World War II. Of the Vietnam Dust Off crew chiefs and flight medics, 121 were killed and 545 wounded, she said.

“Bob, like most Dust Off veterans, is both humble about and reluctant to share his war experience. To a man, they are quick to tell you that the Vietnam War heroes’ names are engraved on The Wall in Washington, D.C. And yet, the heroes of Dust Off — those killed in action — and those who survived ­are heroes by every definition of the word. Their intrepid courage and unhesitating commitment to face death in order that another might live not only saved thousands of people, but revolutionized battlefield medicine and came home to transform domestic trauma care,” Fries said.

“I once asked Bob how he had earned his Purple Heart. He didn’t want to share his story, but he mumbled something about being shot down. ‘How many times were you shot down?’ I asked him. ‘Oh, seven,’ he said, and quickly walked away.”

Baird and his wife, Rose McClelland Baird, have three children: a daughter, Kristen M. Math, in Minnesota; a son, Erik P. Baird in Texas; and his stepson, Navy Lt. Commander J. Wayne Hill, who is attending the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The Bairds have seven grandchildren.

After his retirement from the Army, Baird flew for American Airlines as a pilot, check airman and as manager of the 757/767 fleet.

“Bob is a very patriotic American who loves his country. He and his wife, Rose, often are members of the greeting party at Dallas/Fort Worth (Airport) when soldiers come home. I couldn’t begin to tell you what all he has done or will continue to do for all of us. We love him with all our hearts,” said his cousin, Carole Baird Hoover.

Baird summed up his feelings about Vietnam and war.

“Keeping in mind the dedication to his job and mission a warrior must have, I think we are kidding ourselves when we say ‘we don’t support the war but we support the warrior.’ I don’t believe they are mutually exclusive. My wish for the future is that any military action be declared properly what it is — WAR — and that we go in to a WWII-type mobilization/involvement of the entire population.

“Everyone should have skin in the game or we should not suit up.”

Originally published in The Youngstown (OH) Vindicator

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