I’m getting really close to finishing The Judas Tree. My central characters, are Detective Will Diaz and his friend Michael Jones (Jonesy) are on a manhunt in the Rocky Mountains. Now picture this.

They have radios. They have GPS. And they’re on horseback, using tracking techniques that were old before Christ was born, and in terrain that could kill them in an instant. Their quarry is a man well versed in SERE (Survival, Escape, Resistance, Evasion).

In short, someone who can give them a run for their money.

While pursuing the man, Will is reflecting on what he knows about SERE in an effort to out guess the guy. He has to admit that his knowledge is limited to a few books, one course and exercise, and one man who had actually put SERE into practice.

Staff Sgt. P is a real person. As far as soldiers go, he was a soldier’s soldier. The man knew how to fight and was highly proficient with a handgun. He’s a hero of mine, and probably doesn’t need history too close to home, so I’m not using his full name here.

One of my fondest memories concerning him was the when we got our new Captain at 501st MPs. We hadn’t been to the range in sometime, and so the captains first job was to make sure we still remembered how to use a 45.

We go to the range an d do our 50 round course. The captain, after we’d finished, walks up the targets, looking at how we did. he comes to SSG P’s target and says, “Sergeant, you didn’t qualify.” Dead center, the X in the “O” ring had been shot away and it ,looked like only 10 rounds or so had hit the target.

The Range Master says, “Sir, he qualified.” He then introduced the Captain to a man who’d won the US Army pistol championship three years in a row. After that, SSG P started writing his initials on the target with the pistol.

Nam_Era_Loach
          An example of a ‘Nam era Loach

When he first went into the military, he became a gunner on a Loach (Hughes OH-6 Cayuse), a small helicopter built for recon work and light support. It carried only two people–his pilot who was a Warrant Officer and him. He sat behind the Warrant with an M-60 machine gun.

When I learned that, myself and another soldier name Ed Fiegel decided to do something nice for him. We went down into Ansbach, and at a hobby shop found a model of a Loach. Working from an old photograph, we built him a Loach with the old marking and all. We had to cut out the backdoor, and using a WW II field office Kit, we painted and put a sitting soldier and placed an M-60 machinegun in his hands.

One thing we didn’t mean to do was we painted the name of the Loach backwards on one side. His wife had loaned us the picture and we’d made a  template of the name. SSG P. was surprised we’d done that because that’s how sit really was. He explained the guy who painted the name was tripping on Acid the day it was painted.

We weren’t tripping, you just weren’t paying attention!

Since we’d done that for him, Fiegel and I spent a lot of holidays at his and his wife’s house. We drank a lot of good German beer with him, and as we drank, he began to talk about flying in a Loach in Nam.

One of their big fears was being shot down and captured. They’d already decided that if they got shot down, the first thing to do was get out of the bird once the rotors had stopped and run like hell.

Sounded like a plan to them.

SSgt. P ended up being shot down three times.

The first time they got shot down in Vietnam, the chopper went in hard and he was knocked unconscious in the wreckage. Suddenly he felt himself being pulled out of the wreckage, and he started moaning, “Oh, my God,” over and over. He just knew he was going to open his eyes and see an enemy soldier. Then he heard someone talk to him in English, opened his eyes and saw that a Marine had pulled him out of the wreck. He said it was the first and only time in his life he wanted to French kiss a Marine.

The second time they got shot down, he and his Warrant made it out of the wreckage. North Vietnamese soldiers rushed the helicopter as they got out and they began running for the treeline. They pursued them for three days, and at times were mere yards away. Finally they got away and were rescued.

The third time was the most harrowing. They went down and as soon as he could, SSgt. P jumped out and started running. That’s when he realized his Warrant wasn’t with him. He glanced over his shoulder to see enemy soldiers closing on the wreck. The canopy of the chopper was painted red with blood. He never saw the man again, and near as I know, his body has never been recovered.

He passed out shortly after finishing the third crash story. His wife told me he must like and trust us because he told it to us.

We covered him with a blanket and let him sleep.

And I don’t know what else to say to this ‘Nam vet, or any of the ‘Nam vets except to say, “Thank you for your service.”