On the tarmac at the Bud Field Aviation Hanger, there’s a sound familiar to all Vietnam Combat Veterans. The deep, loud ‘thud, thud, thud’ of a Huey helicopter.
This distinct sound meant supplies, medic rescue, and most importantly, that they were going home.
"I wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for a UH1 helicopter taking care of me,” said US Army pilot Randy Parent, one of two pilots commanding the EMU 309.
Today, veterans claim the Huey continues to save their lives. The EMU 309 is a Bell UH-1H Huey helicopter restored to its 1968 Vietnam War configuration. The all-volunteer team of Huey Vets now maintain the EMU 309 to provide therapeutic flights above the San Antonio Reservoir to veterans suffering the after-effects of war.
Geoff Carr and Peter Olesko bought the Huey helicopter in 2003. Carr mortgaged his house to restore it.
“I knew if these go out of service, they can become beer cans and lose their history,” said Carr.
It has turned the lives around for two veterans, who credit the aircraft for starting their PTSD recovery.
"You hear that expression 'Coming home' and I think it's different for everybody, but if I was going to use that expression, I'd say ‘coming home’ for me was getting back in this chopper and flying it again,” said Andy Perry, who flew the Huey 309 during the Vietnam War for the Royal Australian Navy, fighting alongside American troops.
Perry and U.S. Army Sgt. Faustino Raquiza both received silver stars for their roles in Vietnam. Raquiza was awarded two silver stars.
"The silver star doesn't mean anything to me,” said Raquiza.
“I know people make it a big deal -third highest ranking star in the United States military, but I rather be understood; understood for what I'm going through and not patronized. It's hurtful."
Perry and Raquiza said they had no idea what they were returning home to after their service in Vietnam.
"I was booed at the airport, they threw stuff at me, I was called a baby killer, women killer,” said Raquiza.
Perry said the Royal Australian Navy would not recognize his service and never received recognition for the missions he performed helping American troops in Vietnam.
"They give you a bauble and tell you to go away and get better,” said Perry.
“And really all you want is to be able to talk to people and be understood."
Both men struggled holding down jobs, were harassed by their own communities, and silently suffered post-traumatic stress for decades.
Raquiza’s son encouraged him to meet the EMU 309 team and take a flight. On his first ride, Raquiza said he had terrible flashbacks to Vietnam.
"In my own head, I saw individuals running across the ground from tree to tree, which brought back a lot of bad memories. I thought they were Vietcong running around , I expected to get shot at, I just wanted off the helicopter at that time."
Raquiza, however, forced himself to keep returning to the Huey helicopter.
"About the fifth or sixth time I flew with them, I realized I wasn't getting shot at any more,” said Raquiza.
That was the start of his mental healing process and Raquiza now volunteers every weekend with the Huey Vets and recruits veterans from all battlefields to take therapeutic rides and discuss military PTSD.
"They saved my life in a certain way: helped me re-adjust, help me get stuff together,” said Iraq war veteran Nicholas Rusanoff, who brought along fellow veterans for Saturday’s flights.
Jonathan Belli served in Afghanistan and was shot in the chest. He received the purple heart and the bronze star.
"My job was to find roadside bombs, marking them and having EOD blow them up. So, going out there was always a chance of getting blown up ourselves,” said Belli.
Belli and Rusanoff said the ride helped remind them of the good memories that came from the Blackhawk helicopters.
"It also reminded me of when I was going home on leave. Those were good memories,” said Belli.
"Brings me back to having a hair dryer of hot, dry wind so fast blowing over your mouth and your skin is blowing back,” said Rusanoff.
“You got that mission feeling. You also have it here in the Huey."
Veterans said making connections in the air has lead them to healing back home.
Huey Vets relies on donations to fly.
For more information on how you can help or get involved, go to http://www.hueyvets.com/membershipdonations/