As a crew chief in Vietnam, Jerry Merrick recalls washing blood off the floor of his Chinook helicopter, but remembers little about the injured soldiers he transported.
A doctor once told him the mind is an “unbelievable mechanism” that can seal off certain bad memories.
“He said, ‘You probably ought to feel lucky that you don’t remember the wounded,’” said Merrick, an Osage native now living in Dubuque.
Although he doesn’t remember more graphic details of the war, Merrick knew of others who weren’t able to handle the stress of combat.
“When I was over there, a lot of the guys couldn’t take it, and a couple of them shot themselves in the foot to get out of there,” Merrick said. “I considered other guys — infantry, artillery — as having it worse than me, because I didn’t think I had it that bad.”
One thing that remains vivid in his mind is nine comrades who were killed in action.
Merrick recalls talking with John Powers, a Washington state native, a half hour before his helicopter was blown up in April 1970. On the day Powers died, Merrick was flying in one helicopter, Powers another.
“You hear about survivor’s remorse — I thought maybe I could have saved him,” he said. “You never, never, never get it out of your head. You never do.”
Two years into college, Merrick went to a recruiting station because he was running out of money and knew he would be drafted.
Merrick, then a 20-year-old with extremely curly hair, first stopped in the office for the Marines, where a recruiter crooked his finger at him and said, “Come in, little girl, we’ll make a man out of you.”
He instead settled on the Army, where he learned his education would allow him to fly helicopters.
After flight and mechanic school, Merrick was sent to northern South Vietnam in 1970 with the 101st Airborne Division.
“Vietnam all in all was just an absolutely beautiful country that I loved flying over,” he said. “There was always something different — rice paddies, jungles and a Buddhist temple, often in the middle of nowhere.”
He worked with the Montagnard, indigenous people in the country’s central highlands, and was responsible for dropping off and picking up troops and resupplying, regularly under tense conditions.
“It was pretty frightening, having someone shooting at you and having artillery pieces going off,” he said.
Upon returning to his hometown nine months later, Merrick said he didn’t run in to many problems.
“I think it’s because I’m from the small town of Osage,” he said. “If you cut everyone on the hand, they bleed red, white and blue.”
A decade after Vietnam, Merrick enlisted in the Iowa National Guard. After 21 years of service as an infantry officer, he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2000.
When he joined the Guard, he planned on flying helicopters again due to the age requirement being dropped. After a spat with a senior officer during career day, Merrick learned the requirement had been reinstated, effectively disqualifying him.
“I never got to fly a helicopter after Vietnam,” he said. “It’s too bad, because flying helicopters was absolutely wonderful.”
Merrick was employed by John Deere for 13 years before working as a logistics manager for several different corporations. He is now retired.