Rick Brittingham does not remember seeing the enemy soldiers, but he does remember the sound of the Huey's rotors and the rattle of the M-60 machine gun he fired from the helicopter's door despite his wounds. Brittingham, of Lawton, was an 18-year-old Marine serving in Vietnam on Jan. 21, 1968. When a couple of Huey pilots were looking for a volunteer to replace their wounded door gunner, Brittingham agreed. The decision changed his life. Nearly 40 years later, Brittingham discovered one of those pilots, Bob Ford, was a fellow Oklahoman. Ford, of Okeene, and Brittingham shared a ride Sunday in Norman as part of an ongoing effort to recognize Vietnam Veterans in Oklahoma. Ford was the leader of a flight of Hueys sent that day to help out some special forces soldiers in danger of being overrun in Khe Sanh. One of their door gunners had been wounded, and they needed a replacement. "I said, 'Well hell, get a Marine. We haven't met a Marine yet who didn't want to fight,'” Ford said. That Marine was Brittingham. "I had just come off of perimeter watch, and I'd been up all night,” Brittingham said. "They said they needed a door gunner because this other guy got shot through the foot. They were desperate. I was a Marine, 18, no brains. I just said yes.” He knew the job was dangerous, but he had no idea he was flying into an ambush that would mark the start of the Battle of Khe Sanh. The flight of Hueys went in to try to recover the Americans caught among a division of enemy soldiers. As they tried to land, all hell broke loose, Brittingham said. "The helicopter in front of us got blown up,” he said. "A lot of guys got killed. The guy in front of me got shot in the head. Next thing I know, I'm shot. I just started shooting back.” Ford could see dozens of enemy soldiers trying to overwhelm the helicopters. The pilot in Brittingham's Huey shot one enemy soldier with his pistol as he tried to board the aircraft. "My brain just shut down that there were enemy soldiers rushing our helicopter,” Brittingham said. "I was hitting every one of them, but I don't really remember it. I was blocking it out. All I remember was the rotors of the helicopter and the sound of my gun going off.” Ford said Brittingham's machine gun fire held the North Vietnamese back. "He probably killed between four and six NVA within 20 feet of the aircraft,” Ford said. Before Brittingham could think about what was happening, the helicopters lifted off and headed back to base. When they arrived, he helped unload the wounded. It was the last he saw of the unit in Vietnam. He didn't know the unit's name and could only remember the name of the pilot he flew with and one of the officers who led the mission. Brittingham said he'd have paid more attention to details if he'd known how the event was going to change his life. "It totally turned my life around,” Brittingham said. "I told myself after I survived that day there must be some reason God had me on the Earth.”
Broken heartAfter the war, Brittingham became a police officer, eventually joining the Oklahoma National Guard. He became a doctor and rose through the ranks in the Army to become a colonel. His curiosity about that helicopter flight never went away, so he started doing some research on the Internet. He found an article describing the mission and mentioning the names of those involved. "I just knew there were a bunch of Army guys I flew with and we got all shot up that day,” Brittingham said. When it became clear to me these were the guys, I got down on my knees and cried my eyes out. And I don't know why.” He found Ford through Brig. Gen. Pete Costilow, an Oklahoma National Guard commander who flew Chinook helicopters in Vietnam. Brittingham and Ford talked on the phone. When Brittingham retired from the Guard, he was awarded the Legion of Merit. Ford pinned it on him. "He volunteered on a mission where he didn't have much of a chance,” Ford said. "He did a magnificent job that day.” Operation Oklahoma, an effort by the Oklahoma National Guard to give Vietnam veterans the welcome home they never got when the war ended, arranged the Fourth of July Huey flight for the two men.