Many people know Sen. Dan Swecker served as the 20th District’s representative to the Legislature’s upper chamber from 1995 to 2012.
But few realize the conservative Christian spent his 21st birthday being bombed — not with alcohol, but by mortars lobbed at an airfield in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam.
“I spent the night lying next to a helicopter in what they called a revetment. They mortared us several times,” he recalled. “I was on the ground and I was getting mortared and there wasn’t much I could do about it.”
Swecker, 70, worked summers at a local airfield during the 1960s, helping with firefighting and search-and-rescue operations, and even gave a speech on how to fly a helicopter, though he had never flown one. After graduating from high school in 1965 with 60 other students at Greybull, Wyoming, he attended the University of Washington but hated it. “It was such a big town and a big school, and I was just a small-town boy,” he explained.
In December 1966, Swecker joined the Army on a three-year enlistment.
“I knew when I enlisted in 1966 that I’d end up in Vietnam and I just decided it was worth it,” Swecker said. “I wanted to learn to fly.”
Although technically a Baby Boomer, Swecker said his values more closely resemble the WWII generation.
“I just felt like if there was a war, I needed to go,” he said. “I needed to be part of it.”
After eight weeks of basic training at Fort Polk, Lousiana, he spent five months in flight training at Fort Wolters, Texas, and six months at Fort Rucker, Alabama. He learned that flying helicopters is more complicated than it looks.
“I spent all of 1967 training, and then 10 days before my 21st birthday, I ended up in Vietnam,” Swecker remembered.
He arrived in the war zone Feb. 18, 1968, during the Tet Offensive, an intense Communist Viet Cong assault on South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. He was stationed with the 121st Assault Helicopter Company in fertile farmlands of the Mekong Delta at South Vietnam’s southern tip.
Most of the 121st company supported South Vietnamese troops, inserting them into “hot” zones, providing supplies, and hauling out wounded soldiers. Pilots primarily hauled troops and cargo in UH-1 Hueys, known as “slicks,” while Huey gunships provided protection.
“I was a slick pilot for the first four months, and I hated it,” Swecker recalled. “I got mad at people shooting at me and I couldn’t shoot back.”
The Hueys, flown by a pilot and copilot with a gunner and crew chief armed with M-60 machine guns, could haul up to a dozen Vietnamese troops, but only six Americans, who were larger and packed more ammo.
In the flat delta, where water rolled 23 miles inland with the tide, pilots found little cover.
“It was kind of hard to fly around and not get shot at,” Swecker said. “You had a choice; you could either be 1,500 feet in the air, which was out of range of most weapons, or you could be right smack on the deck, just as close to the ground as you could get, and you could do things like hide behind tree lines. Anything in between we called a dead-man zone because you get up just far enough they had time to track on you, they could hit you.”
During Tet, pilots sought targets of opportunity. “They put me in the back and gave me one of the M-60 machine guns. They flew down, and found an enemy on a canal line and I got to shoot him. It was hard, you know, the first time you kill somebody — it hits you.”
After four months in Vietnam, Swecker extended his tour by six months and transferred to the elite Viking gunship platoon.
“We went in first, we looked for the enemy, we wanted them to shoot at us so we could find and attack them,” he said. “Our job was to keep the slicks safe, get them in, and get them out without anybody getting shot down or getting hurt.”
The gunner and crew chief fired M-60 machine guns, while the copilot controlled two six-barrel Gatling guns firing 4,000 rounds a minute, and the pilot aimed the aircraft to shoot rockets—at least seven on each side. “If the pilot had to brake hard while flying near the ground, the M-60 machine guns could actually shoot through the rotor blades,” Swecker said.
It wasn’t safe at the air base in Soc Trang province either. Pilots had been shot off the top of choppers during preflight checks, Swecker said, “so we just learned to take off and go somewhere else and do the preflight.”
Viet Cong units tried to penetrate the barbed wire surrounding the airfield.
“One night they snuck in and set some satchel charges up just outside the fence,” Swecker recalled. “I happened to be standing outside when the satchel charge went off and I could hear the metal from the thing smacking into the walls all around me.”
He didn’t even have time to dive.
“God was with me,” he said. “God found me a long time before I found him.”
During one flight, Swecker’s chopper took an enemy round through a rocket pod, which caught fire. Although he tried to eject the rocket, nothing happened. They flew to a nearby base, landed on the ground, and ran — waiting for the explosion.
“Fortunately, it had taken a round through one of the rocket motors, the powder, but not the explosive, and so it burned itself out and we ended up being able to take the aircraft back where we started.”
Another time gunfire hit the tail rotor.
“When you got your tail rotor shot out, you had to basically fly it into the ground at 60 miles an hour and you didn’t have any wheels,” he said. “You were just hitting the ground and sliding, and once you hit the ground, you lost all control.
“I remember hitting the ground and at that point started to veer to the left and there were a bunch of aircraft parked over there. I ended up stopping just short of hitting one of those aircraft.”
Gunfire struck his hydraulics on another flight.
“Once you lose your hydraulics you can’t control the aircraft, so what you basically do is keep it above 60 miles an hour and everything’s shaking and you get to where you’re going and then you crash-land.”
When he was flying wing one fateful day, enemy gunfire brought down the lead ship. As the crew evacuated and waited for rescue from a slick, Swecker flew overhead, suppressing enemy positions.
“Well, they shot me full of Swiss cheese that day,” he said. After limping to a staging area and wrapping duct tape around a damaged rotor blade, they flew toward base. But a fire detection light flicked on, meaning they had a minute and a half to drop before flames consumed the magnesium tail.
“As soon as that fire detection light came on, I started screaming ‘Mayday’ on the radio, and then went down,” Swecker said, his voice choking with emotion. “We landed in a rice paddy full of water.”
The crew chief jumped out, waded to the rear, but saw no fire. Bullets apparently shorted out the fire detection system.
“At that point they started shooting at us again,” Swecker said.
The radio also malfunctioned, so officials thought Swecker had signed off and terminated communication.
Water seeped into the chopper’s belly, making it too heavy to lift off.
“So what you have to do is slowly pull it up and let the water drain out,” Swecker explained.
Taking gunfire from all sides, he slid through the water, the front skids shooting rooster tails through the rotor blade.
“My fire detection light was screaming at me, my RPM gauge — I had lost too much RPM — I was right on the edge of losing the whole thing,” he remembered. “I was going to hit the canal line. I can remember just the teeniest little flick of my
finger to give it (the chopper) just a little more pickup, a little more boost, and right at that point we’d lost enough water that the plane actually started to fly.”
Another time, an explosion rocked the chopper. “Part of the shrapnel came up and hit me in the leg,” Swecker recalled. “It felt like an electric shock and my leg ended up in my lap, which is just the weirdest thing. The impact pushed it up like that.”
His copilot flew the chopper back to base. Doctors operated twice to remove shrapnel from his right leg.
“The times I actually crashed were far worse than the times I was shot down,” Swecker said.
Once, flying 10 feet off the ground, the helicopter engine quit. “I didn’t do anything but smack into the ground and slide, and it knocked me colder than a mackerel,” Swecker said, noting he was unconscious for 10 or 15 minutes.
Another time, he crash-landed after a drive line failed in a heavy Huey Hog carrying 19 rockets on each side and an M-5 grenade launcher in the nose. He couldn’t pull out sensitive radio equipment, so he aimed an M-14 to destroy it.
“Unfortunately it was on automatic and I pulled the trigger and it went brr-rr-rr-rrr,” Swecker said. “I missed the primer on one of those M-5 grenades by about an inch. If I’d hit that, the whole place would have gone up.”
Although many crewmates suffered injuries, none died.
“We used to have to buy a round of free drinks at the bar every time we took a hit, but they let us quit doing it after a hundred hits,” Swecker said, chuckling. “So I got to a hundred and quit.”
Swecker flew on more than 100 of his 450 days in Vietnam, covering PT boats on the Mekong River, spreading smoke from diesel in turbine engines to cover the slicks, or dueling at night with .50-caliber machine guns.
One hot afternoon while flying low to the ground, Swecker blanked out, experiencing what is called “flicker vertigo,” when the sunshine and flicking of rotor blades creates a strobe light effect and imbalances brain cell activity.
Initially, he was young and didn’t think about the consequences of his actions, Swecker said. But then it dawned on him.
“I started to realize after being shot down four times and crashing a couple of more times that, uh, it might actually kill me,” he recalled. His last two months, he volunteered as a maintenance crew test pilot.
“I was getting pretty spooky on the controls,” he said, explaining why he turned down offers of a commission as first lieutenant or chief warrant officer. After six weeks in Germany, he was discharged Dec. 18, 1969, with a 10 percent disability for his leg injury.
Only seven or eight years ago, Swecker was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I knew I had nightmares,” he said. “I knew I had all kinds of problems with my relationships with people. It was hard to be intimate or to invest in people because basically you learned not to do that in Vietnam, because you didn’t know how long people were going to be around.”
He said memories stuffed into his subconscious carried huge emotional components.
“I was so surprised that the solution was so mechanical,” he said. “It’s not this psychy stuff. It’s a mechanical process and you just have to get it out. Get the emotions disassociated, and get on with it.”
He had a couple of consultations and four treatments, where the counselor tapped on his leg while he closed his eyes, pictured a helicopter, and shared what he saw — getting shot, feeling back pain, smelling rice paddies.
About that time, a fellow from the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association asked Swecker to pick up a helicopter from an Olympia repair shop and store it for a week until an Auburn parade.
“So I was going through PTSD counseling and I had this helicopter sitting in front of my house,” Swecker said. He realized the counseling had worked when he visualized himself at his age in front of the parade helicopter, “and there were no guns.”
Swecker shared his war and PTSD experiences on the Senate floor before passage of a resolution honoring Korean Veterans of Vietnam.
“We knew we were fighting with the best when we were fighting with the Koreans,” he said. “I mentioned the fact that I had recently been diagnosed with it (PTSD) and had received treatment, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I want people to feel like it’s a good thing.”