Veteran Glenn served on a helicopter ambulance

OKEECHOBEE — Veteran John Glenn, pastor of Freedom Ranch, was born in San Diego, Calif. His father was in the Navy, and the family moved to Colorado when his dad got out of the Navy. Pastor Glenn went to the University of Colorado and majored in partying and having a good time like most other young people of that day, he said. He joined the ROTC program because he heard when you got to be a junior or senior, they would give you $50 a month towards tuition, and he was putting himself through school. Every little bit helped, he said, but that was back in 1967 or ’68, and it was a liberal college campus. Running around in military uniform was quite a conflict, so he dropped out at the end of his freshman year, but he didn’t realize that put him two credits short of being a sophomore the next year.

He didn’t realize it, but the draft board did. He lost his student deferment, and around Thanksgiving he called home to check on his parents, and his mom was all excited — bubbling over because he had gotten a letter from the President of the United States! He knew what it was, even if his mom didn’t. He was being drafted. He went down and talked to them, and asked if he could finish out the semester at school. They let him go ahead and sign up but leave after the first of the year.

He went through Army basic training in Fort Lewis, Wash. and then on to Fort Sam Houston, Texas for medic training. He wanted to be a lab tech. He told the recruiter he was interested in medicine, and he wanted to do something useful, but when the time came to go to school, he just went to regular medic school — combat medic. Basically that’s where everyone starts, he said.

His first assignment was not in Vietnam but Korea with the Seventh Infantry Division. He was a grunt medic, and then they rotated down south to guard missile sites. It was around that time he began to feel like he needed to fulfill his calling as a medic. Even though he was working in the aid station, it was a pretty cushy job, he said.

“Dust Off was basically a helicopter ambulance,” said Veteran John Glenn. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News

He volunteered for Vietnam because he felt a “Call of Duty,” and he felt a need for more money. He was a kid, he said, and he thought like a kid, so he went to jungle training in Okinawa at a special forces camp. After his training, he was given 30 days leave, and he went home before going to Vietnam.

Dust Off, with Veteran John Glenn on board, heads back to base. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

While waiting on orders, he was assigned a work detail to clean the trailer of a full bird colonel who was in the medical corp. While he was cleaning the trailer, the colonel came in, and “I don’t know what possessed me but I just asked him about ‘Dust Off’,” he said. “Dust Off is the call sign for an unarmed medical helicopter. It’s virtually a helicopter ambulance.” He had heard about them and thought it might be interesting to get involved with. His reasoning was, he wouldn’t have to sleep out in the jungle and he could come home at night and sleep in some kind of bed. So, he asked what his chances were of getting into Dust Off. The Colonel picked up the land line, called the unit that was stationed there, and then he said, “Go get your stuff together. They’ll be here in about 10 minutes.”

Dust Off always needed medics. He found out later it was all volunteers — pilots, crew chiefs, medics, and maintenance personnel — because of the risk involved. He found out years later that they had a policy that anytime you got tired of flying and picking up the wounded, you could just walk away. Nothing would be said. That was unusual for the army. He didn’t really understand what he was getting into at the time. Looking back on it, he considers it the best job he ever had, but there was a lot of danger associated with it. The missions they flew were to pick up wounded. Wherever the wounded were the bad guys were or had been and sometimes still were.

“A high percentage of our landing zones were what we called hot L.Z.s. We were taking fire from the enemy. We had to get in, get the wounded, and get them back out,” he said.

Although he was a medic on the helicopter, John Glenn said everyone learned to do a little bit of everything in case they needed to. Here, he was helping with some maintenance. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

Dust off was started back in ’64 by a fellow named Charles Kelly, who had flown those little bubble helicopters that you see on the television show Mash. He was one of those pilots during the Korean War and is known as the father of Dust Off. Any helicopter in the area always tried to pick up wounded, but Dust Off was different. “We were strictly humanitarian. We picked up any wounded — not only U.S. soldiers but all the allies, civilians, even prisoners. Dust Off would pick up anybody even dogs, which made for an interesting mission.” Charles Kelly was the first to fly night missions to pick up wounded and check on troops. He developed a really strong bond with the ground troops. He died picking up wounded. He flew in to pick up wounded, and ground troops waved him off, but he had already landed. They told him to get out. It was too dangerous, but he said I’ll leave when I have your wounded. Those were the last words he ever spoke. A bullet went through his chest and it exploded his heart.

Crew Chief Eric is enjoying some time on the beach in between calls. He served with Veteran John Glenn aboard Dust Off during the Vietnam War. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

Mr. Glenn’s training missions were in Cambodia. He received an air medal within two weeks of being in Vietnam, and you receive one air medal for every 25-hours of combat flight, so that gives you an idea of how many missions they were flying, he said. By the time he quit flying, he had an air medal and 32 oak leaf clusters, so that represented about 800 to 1,000-hours of combat flight time.

Because of Dust Off, the survival rate went way up. In earlier wars, the only way to get the wounded to a hospital was by land, he explained. You had to drag or carry them. “If they were alive when we dropped them off, chances were, they would make it. We all worked together as a team on the helicopter. There was no enlisted and officer. We had to help each other to survive. You miss that kind of camaraderie.” His most harrowing missions were the hoist missions, he said. They had to hover at the tree top level, and drop a hoist penetrator down to the ground to the men so they could load the patient, and they could raise him back up. They made a pretty big target, he said. The enemy did not respect the red cross. They used it for a target. He found out later they were paid extra for shooting down helicopters.

John Glenn is pictured on board Dust Off during the Vietnam War. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

He served for about two and a half years, all of it overseas, which he said was for the best because it was during a time when everyone was protesting the war and veterans were not treated well. He would not have wanted to serve here, he said.

Pastor Glenn struggled with PTSD for many years but did not know what it was until about seven or eight years ago, he said. He saw a lot of things people should not have to see during the war. Now he has a group of combat vets that meets out at the Ranch on Wednesdays to try to work through some of the things they all faced.

He and his wife Sandi have one daughter, Angela. Angela and her husband Elton Boney have two sons Leo and John.

John Glenn said when you served with someone on Dust Off, you became very close. He and his crew chief, Eric (pictured), were good friends. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.
John Glenn waits for a call to pick up wounded in Vietnam. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.
The survival rate for the wounded went way up after Dust Off began, explained Veteran John Glenn. Before that, they had to either carry or drag the wounded to a hospital. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.
“A high percentage of our landing zones were what we called hot L.Z.s,” said Veteran John Glenn. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.
By the time John Glenn quit flying in Vietnam, he had an air medal and 32 oak leaf clusters which represents 800 to 1,000 hours of combat flight. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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