'We had to be off the ground in two minutes'
The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” didn’t even exist when Army soldier Eric Berla was discharged in 1970.
The Vietnam veteran put his harrowing experiences as a medevac pilot behind him, returned to college, got married, reared two children and wound up as a dentist in Waterloo.
“It wasn’t always easy,” said Dr. Berla, 74, of University City, Missouri, who dealt with flashbacks and anger.
Nearly 50 years later, Berla and three others in his military unit have been reunited by a mixed-media sculpture made from the stripped-down remains of their Huey 174 helicopter.
“It’s been incredible healing for all four of us, and our wives can attest to the fact that we are all better,” Berla said. “We’ve all had our issues. You don’t go through something like that without issues.”
All the men feel “survivor’s guilt.” Berla’s former crew chief and medic were killed on Valentine’s Day, 1969, when the Huey, which functioned as an air ambulance, was forced down by enemy fire.
Berla wasn’t on that mission. He had ended his first tour of duty and gone to the United States for a family visit.
“(The crewmen) were either shot or hit by the blades,” he said. “No one knows for sure. The family was told, ‘Don’t open the casket.’”
This month, Berla went to Collinsville to reminisce and commiserate with local veterans who came to see “Take Me Home Huey.”
The helicopter had been salvaged from an Arizona boneyard and restored by Light Horse Legacy, a non-profit organization that supports veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
It was turned into a sculpture two years ago by California-based artist Steve Maloney. He covered the fuselage with sheets of words, symbols and digitally-produced images of a sports car, pin-up girl and other things soldiers may have dreamed about while stationed overseas.
Maloney came up with the idea to honor those who served in Vietnam and help with healing. The helicopter no longer has an engine, so it’s hauled around on a trailer.
“It’s a catalyst for conversation,” said Maloney, 74, speaking by phone from his home near San Diego. “A lot of these guys haven’t talked about (the war) and wouldn’t have talked about it without a reason.”
Dentist and balloon sculptor
Berla shared his war story from the waiting room of his dental office, where a sign reads “Don’t forget to brush your teeth” and a bulletin board lists members of his No Cavities Club.
He’s known for his personal attention and concern for patients, especially children.
“Doctor will blow his gloves up and paint faces on them when they’re done with their appointments,” said employee Donna Siciliano, 45. “He keeps a helium tank in the back so he can do that for the little ones. The kids love it.”
A New Jersey native, Berla was studying chemical engineering at Rutgers University when he got drafted in 1965.
He went to U.S. Army flight school with the understanding he would become a medical-evacuation pilot, rescuing injured soldiers from the Vietnam battlefield.
But Berla’s training got cut short after the enemy’s Tet Offensive in 1968. He ended up with a reconnaissance unit in the 1st Squadron, 9th Calvary Regiment, the same one depicted in the movie “Apocalypse Now.”
“I lasted about three months, and then I demanded to go to medical evacuation,” he said. “I didn’t want to kill people.”
Berla eventually became aircraft commander with the medevac unit of the 1st Calvary Division, 15th Medical Battalion with crew chief Gary Durbach, medic Steven Schumacher and door gunner Ralph Tutrani.
Berla spent nine months with that unit before finishing his first tour and going home to visit family in 1969. He returned to Vietnam six weeks later to hear of the Valentine’s Day crash landing.
For 45 years, Berla thought Tutrani had died along with Durbach and Schumacher. He found out otherwise in 2014, when Dave Barron of Light Horse Legacy called to get more details about the salvaged helicopter.
Barron had traced the Huey’s history through its serial number. It had been recovered in Vietnam, repaired and used for military training until 1999.
Berla and Tutrani reunited at the Arizona unveiling of “Take Me Home Huey” in 2015.
“I was overwhelmed,” said Tutrani, 69, speaking by phone from his home near Philadelphia, where he works as program manager for an institutional bank.
“To touch the aircraft, to touch where I sat, to look at the deck where the other crew members sat ... It was just overwhelming.”
Enemy fire forces landing
Tutrani was able to tell Berla exactly what happened on his Valentine’s Day mission with Durbach, Schumacher and pilots Walt McNees and Dave Adams.
They were preparing to pick up injured U.S. soldiers when the Huey was hit by enemy fire, causing it to start smoking and leaking oil. It was forced to land in a bad spot, collapsing the left skid, so the blades weren’t level.
Durbach reportedly fell first, then Schumacher was killed while trying to aid him.
Another helicopter came to get the three surviving soldiers. Trutani, the tallest at 6-foot-3, gave McNees and Adams a boost to reach the hovering skids. Then he got shot in the hand.
“I was just standing there staring at my hand,” he said. “It didn’t hurt, but I couldn’t believe I had been shot.”
Trutani still managed to climb into the helicopter. After the rescue, he didn’t see McNees again until the “Take Me Home Huey” unveiling in 2015.
It’s been incredible healing for all four of us, and our wives can attest to the fact that we are all better. We’ve all had our issues. You don’t go through something like that without issues.
Dr. Eric Berla on reuniting with men from his Vietnam medevac unit
It was another year before the crew made contact with Adams. He was watching a TV news report on the sculpture and realized the men being interviewed were talking about his Huey.
“Maybe (the helicopter) had one more mission left and that was to get soldiers to talk,” Trutani said.
Berla spent his last six months in Vietnam as a pilot transporting VIPs in Saigon. After being discharged, he returned to Rutgers to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees and attended dental school at Washington University in St. Louis.
Berla practiced in Cahokia for 20 years before taking over the Waterloo practice of Dr. James Schaller in 1997.
“I think (his wartime experience) affects how he takes care of people,” Siciliano said. “He’s not just in it for the almighty dollar. I think he learned in Vietnam that money isn’t everything.”
Berla and his wife, Beverly, have two grown children and five grandchildren.
Berla and his old crew walked next to the sculpture in last year’s America’s Parade, the Veterans Day parade in New York City.
“It was the parade (Vietnam veterans) never got,” he said. “We’ve gone from being spit on to being honored.”
At a glance
- A documentary, also called “Take Me Home Huey,” follows the U.S. Army helicopter’s transformation into a mixed-media sculpture. It will air on PBS SoCal in Southern California and possibly other public TV stations around the country beginning Oct. 10.
- To help with transportation and other costs for the “Take Me Home Huey” project, make a donation at www.lighthorselegacy.org or https://takemehomehuey.org/donate/ or mail a check to Light Horse Legacy Inc., TMHH Project, P.O.Box 7103, Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067.