Howard Altman: Kathy Castor plans Tampa ceremony honoring Vietnam-era veterans

Published October 18 2017
Updated November 3 2017

James Butler was a Marine captain who piloted helicopters in Vietnam and flew 988 missions there.

That adds up to nearly three missions every day.

"All of them were pretty exciting," said Butler, 74, a Tampa native who served in Vietnam for 13 months starting in October 1967.

Some, of course, were more exciting than others for Butler, who flew medical evacuation, reconnaissance and transport missions.

Now living in Carrollwood Village, Butler is one of thousands of local Vietnam War veterans U.S. Rep, Kathy Castor is seeking to honor for their service.

Eligible Vietnam-era veterans will receive a Service Lapel Pin during a ceremony she’s hosting 10 a.m. Oct. 30 at the Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center in Tampa. It’s part of an ongoing national effort, passed in the 2008 defense spending bill, to honor the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, Castor said.

"Many of those who served in the Vietnam era were not welcomed back with open arms and appreciated for their service because of the political contentiousness of the Vietnam war," she said. "It is time to rectify that."

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Of his nearly 1,000 missions, Butler talked about two.

He recalled spending 45 straight days flying in and out of Khe Sahn, the besieged base where some 5,000 Marines held off 20,000 North Vietnamese Army troops for 11 weeks.

"They were getting shot up pretty bad," Butler recalled. "We were bringing in new troops and inserting recon teams around Khe Sahn to see where the bad guys were and how many of them there were."

Butler recalled another mission that stood out. It was later in 1968 and he was trying to reach a compound where Australian and South Vietnamese soldiers were getting shot up and couldn’t get relief for three days.

"I made three passes and they shot the spars out on my rotor blade," Butler said. "An Aussie gets on the radio and says, ‘Come back, you nearly made it.’ So I went in and the medic jumped off and started carrying casualties into the aircraft."

For Butler, the 35 minutes on the ground was an eternity.

"They were walking in mortars, shooting us up with 50 calibers," he said.

He tried to fight back, but the barrel of one of the helicopter’s machine guns burned off, so he had to replace it and keep firing.

"We repelled them while the medic ran through the zone."

Unlike a lot of troops, Butler said, he returned to a rousing welcome in Tampa. He got the same reception at the University of Florida, where he attended law school. Back in Tampa with his degree, he received lots of job offers.

"For me, it was very, very good when I got back. Everyone treated me just super."

But Butler knows that many returning troops were not treated so well, which is why he welcomes Castor’s work honoring those who served.

"A lot of troops didn’t get the recognition they deserved from going over and putting their lives on the line in Vietnam," he said. "This effort is getting them that recognition. Though it is a little late, it is still really appreciated."

More information on the effort is available through Castor’s office, (813) 871-2817 or www.castor.house.gov.

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The Pentagon announced no new deaths last week in ongoing operations.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 43 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan; 39 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a name, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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