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Vietnam war Russell Rasmussen

Russell Rasmussen, a helicopter mechanic who served with the Army during the Vietnam War, works in the yard at his rural Jackson, Nebraska, home on Sept 9. After serving in the military, Rasmussen went on to become a commercial pilot for Iowa Public Service.

JACKSON, Neb.| Russ Rasmussen was fresh out of high school in Kimball, South Dakota, with two things on his mind: He wanted to serve in the Army, and he wanted to work with planes and helicopters.

So, in June 1967, he walked into a recruiter's office and got his wish: He would learn aviation mechanics as a soldier.

After basic training, Rasmussen was shipped off to train to work on helicopters at Fort Eustis near Newport News, Virginia.

Long hours spent studying were matched with time gaining hands-on experience, Rasmussen recalled.

The four months of training came to a close, and Rasmussen was one of 55 in his class of 60 who were sent to Vietnam to work on Bell UH-1 Iroquois military helicopters, better known as “Hueys.”

On Jan. 13, 1968, Rasmussen turned 19 years old. Three days later, he was sent to Vietnam, deployed to the Chu Lai Air Base, near what is now the Nui Thanh District in the Quang Nam Province.

When he arrived, Rasmussen was taken aback by the region's natural beauty.

“It was a very pretty country. Except for, you know, the war,” he said.

Rasmussen was assigned to the 176th Assault Helicopter Company, which was fine with him -- he wanted to be in a workshop repairing rotors and engines.

Every 100 flight hours, the helicopters would be brought in for maintenance. Rasmussen lost himself in routine, getting by day to day toiling in the engine shop, he said.

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The feel of the war changed Jan. 30, 1968, as North Vietnam committed to the Tet Offensive. Rasmussen said everyone was caught off guard with reports of the coordinated attacks on so many U.S. and South Vietnamese targets.

“We realized then how vulnerable we really were,” Rasmussen said.

Work on gunships and medical transports increased. At night, soldiers waited to see if a mortar shell would be launched over the walls, he said.

Forging relationships with his fellow soldier-mechanics was one way to see the war through, Rasmussen explained. 

He survived Vietnam and afterward, attended Colorado Aero Tech (now Redstone College) in Denver, becoming a certified mechanic, thanks to the GI Bill paying for his schooling.

Rasmussen then returned home to South Dakota, to his parents’ farm to work as a ranch hand. As the years passed, he got his private pilot’s license, his eagerness to learn to fly spurred by rides on the Hueys during the war, he said.

After working at a series of other jobs, he became a commercial pilot for Iowa Public Service.

“My work, it all came to me because of my experience in the Army. That’s what made it all possible,” Rasmussen said. He eventually settled in rural Jackson, Neb.

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