TAMPA — For the bulk of the Vietnam war, Samuel Hazelrig flew with the Wild Weasels, an elite group sometimes known as the "daredevils of the skies."
He piloted an F-4 Phantom fighter over dense jungles, actually trying to attract surface-to-air missile fire. He was never shot down, but suffered longterm health consequences from the defoliant Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mr. Hazelrig, who eventually won back a good measure of the peace that had eluded him for decades, died May 13 of heart failure. He was 71.
The Air Force created the Wild Weasels in 1965, after an F-4 was shot down by a SAM missile. The military knew about SAMs and had watched them being built, but could not see who was firing them because of the jungles.
The North Vietnamese did have one vulnerability — the radar they used to track U.S. planes. The Weasels pilots had to be skilled enough to invite fire long enough for the enemy to turn on its radar — which revealed their position to a strike force of bombers trailing the first wave of planes.
Because they not only drew fire but did not return until the strike force had left safely, Weasels sustained high casualty rates.
Samuel Carlton Hazelrig was born in 1941 in Birmingham, Ala., where a 56-foot cast iron statue of Vulcan towers over the city and its steel mills. He moved to Tampa at age 13.
Gabrielle Ayala, his girlfriend at Plant High, said Mr. Hazelrig was "a popular guy that people gravitated to." The sweethearts reconnected in the late 1970s and married.
At the University of Florida, Mr. Hazelrig found his Alpha Tau Omega parties more meaningful than classes. Seeing he would likely be drafted anyway, Mr. Hazelrig enlisted in 1964 in order to land in the Air Force. He served as a navigator on a KC-135 air refueler, then trained as a pilot.
"He loved what he was doing," Ayala said, "flying those planes and going so fast, the fear and the adrenaline."
Mr. Hazelrig re-enlisted twice. He flew 258 missions, 138 of them in enemy territory. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal (with three oak leaf clusters).
His heroism came with hidden costs. Besides strategically attracting fire, Mr. Hazelrig dropped napalm and other ordnance. "I think that was the major contributing factor to the PTSD," his wife said.
According to Thomas Hazelrig, his brother, "It's always you think you're bombing a jungle. But when you think there's a jungle with women and children in it, you can't let yourself go there."
In 1971, Mr. Hazelrig tried to return his medals to his commanding officer.
Mr. Hazelrig was discharged honorably in 1972, as a captain, after seven years, nine months and 25 days in the Air Force.
He bounced around for seven or eight years, working odd jobs and crashing on friends' couches.
Things improved after he married Ayala in 1981 and sold food for his father's brokerage company. But he found it hard to focus on paperwork. He also suffered "psychotic breaks," his wife said, usually at night. He would pace and shout, sometimes for hours.
He applied for PTSD benefits but was his own worst enemy. "He would get cleaned up and act like everything was okay," his wife said. "Finally his counselor at the (Tampa) Vet Center said, 'Sam, you have to quit acting like you don't have it.' "
The VA granted Mr. Hazelrig a PTSD disability nine years ago. He enjoyed science fiction, folk music and cookouts at his house, usually attended by fellow members of a PTSD support group.
He suffered respiratory and heart ailments that caused his death.
Though eligible for a military burial, Mr. Hazelrig had asked his wife to scatter his cremated remains in three places:
She will drop some into Tampa Bay;
She will go to California to sprinkle remains in the comforting quiet of redwood forests;
Finally, she will bring Mr. Hazelrig's ashes to Birmingham. She will scatter them near the feet of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437 on Twitter.