KSLA Salutes: Surviving Vietnam and saving lives at home
SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - A Vietnam veteran came home with the goal to save lives back in the states after a near brush with death before even heading overseas.
After making a perfect score on the entrance exam, the Air Force wanted to put Gary Hughes on a six-month waiting list for flight school.
"I had no job, I was unemployed and I couldn't live for six months without working and I thought it would be dishonest to go to work for someone knowing that I was going to leave, so I turned it down and I just went back and enlisted," he explained.
Instead of becoming a pilot, Hughes attended Aviation cadet school and became a navigator, he flew on F-89 D's, F-89 J's, B-25s.
When the time the war started in Vietnam, Hughes got orders sending him to fighter weapons school to fly F-4s.
The instructors split his class of six the night before training started.
"'We want three of you,'" Hughes recalled. "'You, you and you, be out here at 4 a.m. We're going to take three F-4s down to Tucson because they have a simulator. You other three will go to class here and then next week we'll switch.'"
The next 24 hours would change his life forever.
"Around dusk, we get ready to come back home, and we're the number two aircraft," Hughes said. "The first aircraft rolls, 10 seconds later we started rolling. We're trying to join up with the lead aircraft and as you get closer, you pull your throttles back to sync your speed."
In this case, the instructor did not pull his throttles straight back.
"He accidentally went inboard with his throttles and got behind the stop, so when he tried to add power back in, he thought the throttles had jammed."
A move Hughes could not correct from the backseat.
"He says, 'Going in! Eject! Eject!' I reach down and pull on the handle between my legs and I eject," recalled Hughes.
The sheer force of the ejection broke the instructor's neck and back.
"He was fortunate he landed in a swimming pool, so all his damage came from the ejection not from hitting the ground," Hughes said. "The seat was mean enough that I lost 2 1/2 inches in height. I was 5'10.5' and I became a 5'8" person. My back now has a kink in it and my parachute opened so late, that I was almost to the ground when it opened and I made a hole approximately 18 inches deep with my body."
The impact dislocated his hips, shoulder and rib cage.
"They took me to the hospital and while I'm having my flight suit cut off me, they had a TV in there and they're talking about the aircraft continued on and landed in a shopping center and it's December 18 a week before Christmas," Hughes said. I basically went into shock."
Four women lost their lives in the crash.
"I don't think there's been a day that I haven't had those women in my mind," he said.
After just days in the hospital, Air Force leaders called Hughes back to duty, sending him back to class to prepare for war. A short time later, he was back on flying status.
"I don't get very many missions in and he says 'Okay, you're good enough, we're going to send you to Vietnam.' I was a long way from the 120 hours that you were supposed to get," Hughes said.
Six months after the crash in Tucson, Hughes was flying missions over Vietnam.
Hughes' military career ended in July of 1969.
At the end of his 12-month tour, he flew 210 combat missions he earned many air medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross, a medal he never knew he earned until years later.
Since then, he's donated his time to helping others live through caregiving and blood donation.
"I've given over 80 gallons of blood, and I think all of that is because I felt guilty," he said. "I had survivors guilt, I think that's what you would call it, and you feel like you have killed people so it's a way of trying to give back and save lives to make up for the lives that you took."
At 83 years old, this veteran has slowed just a little. He now donates blood every four weeks instead of two.
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