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My “Near Death” Experience

It was September 1970. I was the aircraft commander of a Huey helicopter, flying what we referred to as a combat assault mission, that is, a mission to put troops on the ground to engage the enemy. I was flight lead that day, the first ship in the formation. I’d be the first aircraft to land in the LZ, the landing zone.

The LZ was across the Vietnam border in Laos, in rolling hills, with a very high elephant grass cover. Our spotter plane made a pass over the LZ, and he radioed his ‘mark-mark’ as he passed over the exact spot where I was to land. I briefed my crew, and notified the troops sitting on the floor behind me that I was 30 seconds from landing. All five of the men prepared to go in. They put out their cigarettes, slapped on their helmets, flicked off safeties on their M-16s, and watched as the ground came up to meet us.

The grass was deep, eight feet high or more. On short final, the rotor blast from my helicopter whipped it away, laying it flat, revealing the ground underneath. That’s not all it revealed.

I remember seeing something in my peripheral vision, a spec of something darker and different. It was out of place in that verdant spot, not green, but almost black. In the fraction of a second, I had left to live I knew whatever it was didn’t belong there. As the landing gear touched down, I remember turning my head toward whatever the object was, turning just a little bit to the left…

Directly behind me, from the floor of the aircraft, the shocking, skin-chilling roar of an automatic weapon blasted out several rounds, raising bumps up and down my arms and neck. The bark of gunfire was so sudden and unexpected it made me gasp. I inhaled so quickly it almost hurt.

The next thing I recall is seeing that dark enemy trooper collapse in a heap, dead before his body hit the ground. He was the dark object I’d seen in my side vision, the mysterious thing that didn’t belong. Thirty feet away, he’d had his rifle aimed directly at my head. Hidden in the grass, until my rotorwash exposed him, he’d been fully prepared to kill me, until that trooper behind me shot him dead. The event happened more quickly than thought, faster than any writing of it.

I was 21 years old that day. That enemy trooper was as old as he would ever get. When I took off, and climbed into the sky, it hit me: That was my near-death experience. For the other man, it was a near-life experience.

Afterward I was utterly changed. Who could not be? I’d always known in my head that I could die in Vietnam. After that day, I knew it in my heart and soul. If there’s a message in this, it might be the reiteration of something we hear time after time. We have near-death experiences every day. Some of us are fortunate to see the darkness up close; some never notice it for the green and verdant world we’re immersed in. Some of us rise each day in appreciation for the opportunity every new takeoff presents. I hope I do that in my own life, because that dead soldier no longer has that choice.

Byron Edgington
Byron Edgingtonhttps://www.byronedgington.com/
Byron Edgington was a commercial & military helicopter pilot for 50 years. An award-winning writer, he is the author of several books including The Sky Behind Me: a Memoir of Flying and Life, A Vietnam Anthem: What the War Gave Me, Waiting for Willie Pete, a Novel of Vietnam, PostFlight: An Old Pilot’s Logbook, and recently released Journey Well, You Are More Than Enough. Edgington served in the U.S. Army as a helicopter pilot, including a yearlong tour in Vietnam. As a commercial pilot, he flew all over the world, including 20 years of air medical flying in Iowa, news & traffic in several U.S. cities, a stint as a corporate pilot, and three years flying tours on the island of Kauai. After retiring from aviation in 2005, he returned to college and received his Bachelor's Degree in English and creative writing from The Ohio State University at age 63. In 2012 Edgington won the prestigious Bailey Prize in non-fiction from the Swedenborg Foundation Press for his essay titled ‘Lift Off.’ Byron Edgington is married to his best friend, Mariah. He has three daughters, and six grandchildren. Recently returned to the U.S. after living in Medellin Colombia, he now lives and writes in Iowa City Iowa.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Incredible, eloquent story. When I was a kid, I used to “play war” with neighborhood friends outside or alone in my room with G.I. Joe toys. I fantasized about it, as lots of kids do. Then one day in my early 20s, I immersed myself mentally in the realities of being in an actual, real-life combat zone, with actual, real people there wanting to kill me. When I merely imagined the reality, it shook me. I no longer fantasized about war or being some sort of Rambo. I wanted no part of war. Ever. And, it gave me a tremendous respect for those that have seen it up close like that. Amazing story, Byron. Thank you for sharing it. I’m glad you made it out of there.

    • Mark: I ‘played Army’ when I was a kid as well, and I also remember the romantic, adventurous part of it. There were the John Wayne, and Audie Murphy, and Burt Lancaster movies that glorified the experience. The 4th of July parades always focused on military triumphs, and veterans. It’s no wonder we have no concept of what war is really like ‘up close’ as you say. After Vietnam, and subsequent endeavors, I’m more convinced than ever that war is a tragic failure of human imagination. I don’t see kids playing Army anymore, so I guess that’s a good thing.
      Thanks for writing.

  2. Byron, wow. Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve had several friends share similar near-death experiences from their time on the front lines, etc., and I never cease to be amazed at the sheer courage and daily resolve that one must muster to get back into the fray, again and again.

  3. Byron, Thank you for that awesome article. Brought back a lot of memories. When I was a young Marine just out of Tank Training headed to Vietnam in 1966 I thought that I was invincible. That thought soon went away when in Okinawa they put a piece of paper in front of me with the words, “Last Will and Testament”. I was told, along with the other Marines in that room that we had to fill that out. It was at that point before even getting in country that I realized there was a possibility that my invincibility was a bit cavalier and hopefully my training and my fellow Marines would be what was going to keep me alive.
    One more thing I would like everyone to know. When we did Search and Destroy, or a sweep, the young pilots flying the Helicopters were not only responsible for flying troops into battle but they also saved many lives, Marine and Army by flying Medevacs with total disregard for their own safety.
    I think we all lost a part of our self as a result of that war.
    Thank you for your service
    Semper Fi

  4. Thanks for sharing this part of your story Byron. We’re often not aware of many of our near-death moments. Your story makes me wonder if that’s a bad thing. We seem to ask the question all the time, what would you do today if you were going to die tomorrow? Hmmm… after several near-death moments for myself and then actual, I still land on, “what would you do if you found out you were going to live tomorrow?”

    I’m glad you found out you were going to live, on that day in your 21-year-old life. I’m glad your brother had your back.

  5. Oh Byron Edgington of all the lines in this profound piece, this one “I’d always known in my head that I could die in Vietnam” really went to my heart. You were 21, younger than 2 of my 3 sons are right now. Your words, your courageous recount of your nde will forever change me and the way I view my life. Thank you sir, for serving our country.

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