Vietnam veteran found a home in helicopters

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series running this month that takes a closer look at area veterans.

Frank A. Esposito came back in May 1971 from his yearlong tour of military service in South Vietnam as the same man, but also a different man.

He classified his deployment as “harder” on his wife, Ellen Esposito, and parents and family, than for himself, and his musical horizon expanded while serving his country.

A couple of men with whom Esposito served grew up within a two-mile radius of his hometown in Long Island, N.Y., but he said, with irony, “I had to go 13,000 miles to meet them.”

Sitting in his office this past week and reflecting on his “three years and 19 days” of active duty from 1969-72, during the Vietnam War – a conflict that spanned four U.S. presidencies: Kennedy; Johnson; Nixon; and Ford –the retired colonel talked of his ideal timing of leaving full-time service on a Sunday, and going to work the next day for an oil company. He continued in commanding or other officer aviation posts – two with the N.Y. Army National Guard and four U.S. Army Reserve – covering 25 more years.

“So I was never unemployed,” the retiree said, happy also to have spent 28 years flying and training pilots for helicopters, especially Huey models.

Sharing a wall with a detailed map framed as artwork and full of lines highlighting missions he flew in the former South Vietnam, a photo shows Esposito in the “Last Huey Out,” from Aug. 13, 1995, at Fort Meade, Md.

“That’s also the day Mickey Mantle died,” said Esposito, 68, who also loves playing golf by his home near Myrtle Beach.

A cockpit provided this man his field of dreams while in uniform. After his tenure in the reserve officers’ training corps during high school, Esposito enlisted in the Army. He said World War II had brought deployments for his father and several uncles, the last of whom died last year, so, “It was my turn to step up to the plate.”

Looking up for a choice

Esposito reflected on a moment from training at Fort Knox, Ky., and helping in a maintenance task as a helicopter whizzed by. He said he asked himself, readying for eventual transfer to South Vietnam, “Do I want to keep doing this, or do that?” as he pointed upward, so he put in for flight training, and that initiative took off.

Serving in the Second Squadron of 2/17 Air Cavalry 101 Airborne Division, he observed the Vietnamese referring to the conflict as the “American War,” but outside of executing his duties, he made the best of off-duty there, with camaraderie with a bunch of fellow aviators “a big part of it.”

Still, songs such as the Animals’ “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” take Esposito’s mind back to that part of Indochina. He said he shipped out, having grown up as a “Beach Boys, Beatles and Elvis guy from up north,” but crew mates ushered in some “Southern culture” for him.

“I was never into country music until I got over there,” he said. “I picked up on Johnny Cash and ‘Fulsom Prison Blues,’ and Tammy Wynette. I never heard of Tammy Wynette until I got over there.”

Singers touring from the Philippines and Australia also entertained in the officers’ clubs, he said, also remembering one crew mate who “could pick up a guitar and play any song.”

Esposito said reading “a lot of books” and letters filled his free time.

“My wife,” he said of his marriage going on 46 years, “sent me a letter every day, and I still have those letters.”

Those often came in piles with which to catch up every two or three weeks, “as I was being bounced all over the country,” Esposito said.

Since losing photographs in a fire several years ago, Esposito has built up a computer file of keepsake pictures from South Vietnam and his military tenure, thanks to kind friends and crew mates who have helped stockpiled his supply, one by one.

One hole never forgotten

Forever loving the thrill of flying, Esposito showed a photo of himself in a Huey with a hole fired into, but not penetrating, the thick panel by which he sat. He then got out the actual plate out of closet and showed how the section had withstood the gunfire, and said he would joke years ago when asking his sons to mind their behavior that if not for that protective sheet of material, he and they might not be here today.

Anyone who receives a business card from Esposito needs to flip it over to read a quote from Winston Churchill, the two-time British prime minister (1940-45 and ’51-’55):

“Nothing in life is more exhilarating than to be shot at without results.”

Esposito scanned through a few dozen other photos, pausing by a small group shot taken amid smiles in his squadron, and he noted which of the other men are no longer living. Christmas memories from 1971 are frozen in two frames, one showing him after giving a hand-held tree each to two youngsters, and another shot of three Catholic nuns with children from their orphanage holding the little white trees.

Minutes after the Esposito family’s black Labrador, Casey, almost 14 years old, walked in and out of his office this week, he proceeded through more photos, coming across one of Tripod, a similar looking pooch with only three legs that he befriended in South Vietnam.

Esposito, a father of two sons and a daughter, said he had an opportunity to visit the nation of Vietnam with a fellow soldier who goes regularly, to that man’s wife’s native land, but Esposito didn’t want to miss being with family for the birth of his third grandchild.

Figuring not many local people he encountered in his tour of duty remain alive today, because of a shorter lifespan in that war zone, Esposito counts his blessings, without any negative flashbacks or other post-war syndromes with which so many other service personnel have coped.

He said he flew home from Asia through the Seattle-Tacoma and Kennedy New York airports, wearing khakis and carrying a duffle bag, and that greetings from children waiting for a school bus added to his happy return and welcome home in his neighborhood, leading to a family party coordinated by his in-laws.

From his preparations for discharge from active duty, Esposito said applications for five jobs generated five offers, and that leadership experience helped him with skills to shift to the private sector.

Esposito remains humble about his time overseas, and mindful of the purpose and meaning of Memorial Day and Veterans Day, respectively. He said “the heroes” – those in the military who “laid it on the line” and gave their lives in serving the United States around the world – deserve everyone’s salute in respect for the national observance, this year on May 26.

“I’m not a hero,” he is quick to say, bringing up the cover of a book “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam,” by retired Army Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway.

Esposito, who has met Galloway, gave another illustration of heroism. He said the solider in the foreground of the book’s cover photo, Rick Rescorla, became a security chief for an investment firm in New York after retiring from the Army as a colonel, and he later gave his life in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Esposito said Rescorla, through being resourceful, ready and prepared for any emergency, helped everyone in his employer’s offices that morning in the World Trade Center.

“He got them all out,” Esposito said, “then he went back in the building to check for other people, and the building came down on top of him.”