Like the chopping rotors that make helicopters fly and spin, time has spun our perception of the men and women who served in Vietnam. “Forty years ago,” says Vietnam Veteran Helicopter Pilot Ken Gurbisz, he and his fellow soldiers “came home from their service in the jungle, not to showers of ticker tape, but hurled paint, spit and cries of, “baby killer!”
In a gross understatement, the 65 year-old former helicopter pilot said, “It was a very unpopular war.” In those days, Americans knew of the War only from watching it with their TV dinners in front of the six o’clock news, without a lot of insight into the trials of the men and women following orders. “Now we’re like rockstars,” said Gurbisz, who goes by the nickname, Head Rusted Nut, a nod to his role as leader of the restoration project. “Everybody wants to know a Vietnam Vet.”
So much has changed in fact, that Gurbisz and an ever growing group of fellow Vietnam Veterans are at the center of a volunteer helicopter restoration project, fueled by donations from the public through the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation.
Every Monday morning a team of 20 Vietnam Veterans, recent Veterans and their families gather at a hangar at the Monmouth Executive Airport in Wall Township, NJ. Together they share a cup of coffee and go over plans for the day to restore the icon of the Vietnam War, the Huey helicopter. In Vietnam, 12,000 helicopters, of which 7,000 were Hueys, were the lifeline of troops on the ground flying in a steady circle – resupply, pull out the wounded, return to base and then return to the conflict.
“Most who served in the Vietnam War, Gurbisz said, have an attachment to the helicopter. It was their duty, their rescue, the center of their lives in combat.” “When they see it,” Gurbisz says, “it all comes rushing back, the history, the feelings.”
To date the team has logged over 1,500 hours of work, shared countless war stories, and in doing so, bridged the gaps of generations and different wars.
“It started out as serious business, and it still is, but now you watch people come together and there is a social aspect,” said Gurbisz, a 28 year resident of Eatontown, originally from Bayonne.
About half the volunteers are retired Vietnam Veterans, but some, like two Afghan war veterans who joined recently, are from a new generation looking to connect with the past, give back and heal.
This Huey won’t fly again. Not literally anyway. But it will come to life when it’s installed at the Vietnam Era Museum & Educational Center. There, tour guides, who all served in Vietnam, will share their first-hand experiences of navigating in a Landing Zone to pull out the wounded and resupply the troops. Or tell how they were the ones limping on the shoulder of a buddy to the helicopter, which would airlift them out of danger.
The goal, Gurbisz said, is to honor the crew members of the aviation unit in Vietnam who suffered extremely high casualty rates and those who were airlifted out of landing zones.
So far, he said the public has been generous donating the parts, equipment and tools for the project. But now, what the crew needs most he says, is cash. The group has started a campaign with the crowd funding web site, Indiegogo. Here anyone can contribute to the project at various fundraising levels, from “ground crew” at $10 up to “commanding officer” at $10,000.
The current fundraising goal is $20,000, of which they’ve raised more than $2,750 so far with the hope of unveiling the restored Huey and museum experience in May 2014, the Huey’s 50th birthday.
It’s a tall order, but the Head Rusted Nut isn’t worried.
“The community, especially in Monmouth County, has really come together around us. It’s a good feeling for a change. You tell people about the project and right away they want to become a part of it.”