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Bookout shares stories of courage and loss during Vietnam

Published: Monday, Nov. 5, 2012 11:31 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Nov. 5, 2012 11:37 a.m. CDT

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One peek into Army veteran Steve Bookout’s Newton home gives a glimpse into the two tours of duty he served during the Vietnam War: At his computer desk sits an armored seat, stripped from a helicopter much like the ones he used to fly.

His basement houses two helicopter doors, emblazoned with a red wild boar, the symbol of the Razorbacks gun squad, and a photo of Gen. William Westmoreland hangs on a wall, a personalized inscription scrawled at the bottom.

While each of these alone conveys plenty about Bookout’s service during the Vietnam war, none fully tell his story, which began with his high school graduation.

“I joined the Army a week after high school, and I was pretty immature,” Bookout said with a laugh.

“I was part of the 101st Airborne by the DMZ,” he said of his first tour as a helicopter pilot, which began in 1966. “They told us that if we went down they wouldn’t come after us. Our families would be told we were MIA, presumed dead. When you’ve only got 1⁄16 inch of aluminum and 1⁄4 inch plexiglass in front of you, that’s not a lot of protection.”

Before shipping out, Bookout became acquainted with warrant officer Jack Wheeler, a man whom he described as his “best friend.”

“War bonds people in ways — I don’t know how to describe it,” Bookout said. “We were closer with each other than siblings.”

“He was just one of those guys you meet and have an affinity for,” Bookout said of Wheeler. “When we finished primary helicopter school in Texas, we went to Alabama and were neighbors.”

“He used to ride me all the time,” Bookout laughed, explaining all the fun Wheeler would poke at him.

In 1969, however, an incident in Vietnam cut Bookout and Wheeler’s friendship short.

“In November of 1969, Sally (Wheeler) got ahold of me and said Jack was killed, and that bothered me quite badly,” Bookout said. “He took on a whole company of Viet Cong by himself, and this time they stood and fought and Jack went down.”

“It’s just one of those things ... why did it happen? You know, because usually things like that don’t happen,” Bookout said.

This prompted Bookout to seek a second tour of duty as the Vietnam War drew closer to an end.

“In May of 1970 I went back and I asked to be on a gun team,” he said. “In fact, I went back to Vietnam a second time to avenge his death.”

This second tour brought with it the opportunity for Bookout to work with Gen. Westmoreland, who, at the time, served as the Army’s chief of staff — although Bookout didn’t quite realize it at first.

“We’d flown to pick up (VIPs), but they didn’t say who,” Bookout explained. “This white-haired, four-star general climbs on board, and all they said was, ‘fly west.’ I was letting the co-pilot fly, and I looked in back and saw his wings and that he was watching all the instruments.”

“I asked, ‘do you want to fly this thing?’ and he said ‘yeah!’ like a little kid,” Bookout laughed. “So he put the helmet on, climbed in front and we took off for Saigon.”

It took a few more flights of this nature for Bookout realize that he was letting Gen. Westmoreland — who ranks at a security code just below the U.S. vice president — do something he was expressly not supposed to engage in.

“(After the third flight), this captain comes up and shakes the (expletive) out of me, and I had no idea what was going on,” Bookout said.

“The General was not supposed to fly, period — he was forbidden by the president,” Bookout said he later learned. “But when Westmoreland got out of that helicopter, he stuck his finger at the captain and he said, ‘you leave him be.”

According to Bookout, the Razorbacks, who were created specifically to protect the Saigon area of operations, were notorious for showing no mercy.

“All of our helicopters were shot down, some multiple times,” he said. “Nobody messed with us. I came home one night with 541 holes in my helicopter and it still brought us home.” It was encounters like these that earned Bookout a Bronze Star and 23 air medals during his five years of active duty.

These instances are merely two stories Bookout, has recounted for The Aviator, a magazine published by the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots’ Association. In addition, they’ll soon have a home in a compilation Bookout is currently putting together.

“We’re still alive, let’s tell our stories now,” Bookout said, comparing his endeavor to similar war story collections based on letters and documents rather than firsthand accounts. “I want to give these stories back to my grandkids and great-grandkids so they know what grandpa did.”

The book, tentatively titled “The Boys From Jasper County,” recounts the experiences of local veterans from “all eras and all branches,” Bookout said.

“There are other Jasper County Vietnam veterans with stories to tell, so this is a good idea,” he said. “It’s hard to get some Vietman veterans to open up, but some have.”

“War brings out the best and worst in people,” Bookout said, “but I look back at my personal experience as a positive experience. I’m not a hawk, and certainly not a dove, but if I had to, I’d do it all again.”

Nicole Wiegand can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 422 or via email at nwiegand@newtondailynews.com.

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