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Veterans Day: After 42 years, a Vietnam pilot shares his story
By Jason Lesley
Even though it’s been more than 40 years since Frank Beckham III of the Pawleys Island area flew helicopters in Vietnam, he says it seems like yesterday.
“I have flashbacks every day,” he told a veterans gathering at Belin Memorial United Methodist Church this week. “It’s the same 10 pictures, like a real quick slideshow: tree tops, bomb craters, bunkers and one of my favorite air crews.”
With the help of his wife Linda, Beckham told veterans gathered to salute men and women who served in Vietnam, he has stopped self-medicating with booze, pot and pills and brought the Lord back into his life. “I thought I was outrunning the monster,” he said, “but the monster was on my back. In 1996, God sent an angel into my life. She got me going back to church. I don’t know how anyone who has been through combat can handle it without the Lord.”
Beckham said Tuesday’s speech was the first he’s made in public about his war experience since 1973.
Despite a year of training, Beckham realized he was in “way over his head” as soon as he got to Vietnam. August 1970 was his darkest month. Two of his fellow pilots were killed and another lost a leg. “I had to help pack up all their belongings,” he said. “I was in that hooch for five days by myself. Those were some dark days. I threw God out the door. I couldn’t believe that a loving God would let something like that happen. I just lost it. I was so full of hate.”
Beckham said he shifted to a Cobra helicopter gunship when he was transferred back to his base, Camp Eagle. “I wanted to kill, and that’s just what I did,” he said. “I flew gunships for 120 hours. I know I killed a lot of people.”
His last Cobra mission nearly ended in tragedy. His copter hooked a metal ground plate on takeoff and went down nose first. The blades struck the ground, and the ship destroyed itself, he said. It rolled on its right side, blocking the door and pinning the pilot inside the canopy. Beckham used his revolver to shoot holes in the Plexiglas and escape. “That was it for me,” he said. “My colonel called and asked, ‘Mr. Beckham, have you had enough?’ I need you back in the lift platoon.” Beckham returned to flying Hueys and was shot down on Dec. 1, 1970, suffering shrapnel wounds to his foot and groin and injuring his back. He had logged 807 hours of flight time and been shot down five times.
On Dec. 20, 1970, Beckham accompanied six body bags in an aircraft bound for graves registration on his way home. “Those were six people I knew and helped identify,” he said. “They said have the bodies processed, leave the aircraft there and so long. That’s the way I left Vietnam. That’s the problem so many of us faced. We had no decompression time. We were there, and all of a sudden we were home.”
Beckham, by his own admission, was a mental wreck. “I was supposed to go back for six months,” he said. “When they told me there was an early out program and I could get out of the Army, I sat on the floor and cried like a baby. There’s no way I could have gone back and been productive.”
Beckham left Fort Lewis, Wash., on a bus bound for San Francisco. On the way, he was told about potential negative reactions at the airport. “It was horrible,” he said. “I didn’t get spit on, but people were gesturing, calling me a baby killer. I had this beautiful woman sit beside me. She held my hand and asked me about my experience. I was having trouble explaining it and said I was getting ready to go home and have a good life. She looked at me and said, ‘I hope you go straight to hell,’ and got up and left. I ended up waiting on my flight with a Marine in a bathroom.”
Beckham arrived in Atlanta on Christmas Eve. His flight to Myrtle Beach didn’t leave until the next morning. He met a fellow traveler, a little white-haired woman, who shared her bag of oranges. They talked and sang Christmas carols. “She was the dearest person in the world,” he said. They got ready to part the next day, and Beckham realized he didn’t know the woman’s name. “You’ll never believe it,” she said, handing him her driver’s license. Her name was Mary Christmas.
Beckham arrived home to a supportive family and friends. “They didn’t understand what was going on in my head,” he said. “I had a monster. You couldn’t tame it. You couldn’t kill it. I figured I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to keep it from eating me.” After a failed attempt at returning to college, Beckham went to the psychiatric unit at the Veterans Administration hospital in Salisbury, N.C. It was like being in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” he said. “If you showed any sign of aggression or frustration, they would pop you with Thorazine and you would lay on the floor for a couple hours slobbering.”
Beckham said orderlies took him to a top floor of the hospital where he saw people sitting in tall wheelchairs looking out the windows. They had all be lobotomized. An orderly told him, “If you don’t go home and straighten up, your family can have this done to you.” He was given a bottle of Valium and put on a bus for Myrtle Beach.
Beckham said he went through two quick marriages before he met and married a woman in the 1970s with two children. He got a degree in forestry and worked for the U.S. Geological Survey for awhile. He struggled with flashbacks and nightmares. His “monster” was always right behind him, and after 17 years his third marriage failed. In 1996, he met Linda and, with her help, changed his life. He feels bad for other Vietnam veterans who weren’t so lucky. “We are brothers and sisters in a unique family,” Beckham said. “We stand up for each other, and it will be that way till the end. I hope the world doesn’t forget us.”