Two bridges, one going north, one south, are currently named Bridges 1124 and 1889 in the Alaska Department of Transportation listing of state bridges.
House Bill 34, sponsored by Rep. Laddie Shaw, would rename the them the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Memorial Bridges.
Shaw said Tuesday on the House floor that 2,002 pilots and 2,704 crew members were killed, and 5,086 helicopters were destroyed in the many dangerous helicopter missions during the Vietnam War.
For Shaw, it’s a personal story. He served two tours in Vietnam. He is a certified helicopter pilot and associate member of the Vietnam Veterans Helicopter Pilot Association, which has 85 members left in Alaska. Their numbers reduce by the year.
“Our helicopter pilots were well-trained, well-versed and of the highest character. But no training existed that could prepare them for what they would actually be doing. And what they were doing was putting themselves in danger in service of their fellows,” he said, as he described a photo of himself at age 22, Sept. 20, 1970, a day when his team evacuated fighters.
“On that day, because of the bravery and skill of the pilot in that photo and the others who helped in that evacuation operation, three of my teammates survived who would certainly have perished otherwise,” Shaw said. Two did not survive.
Reps. Ken McCarty of District 13 and House Minority Leader Cathy Tilton spoke with emotion about the sacrifices of the helicopter pilots from the Vietnam War, some of whom they know or have known as friends.
“This bridge is in my district and the great thing about the placement of this bridge is not only would it show show honor, but it is situated in a place where you can look at Gold Star Peak, which honors those who lost their families in service…” Tilton said, her voice breaking. “The bridges are also located near Reflections Lake, where we hope to put a Gold Star Peak Memorial Park so those who cannot make it to the top at Gold Star Peak have a place to honor their family members.”
Rep. Ben Carpenter, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said, “For those who have never served in combat it’s hard to understand what helicopter pilots, what frame of mind they would have to have. What is the context in which they served? Hard for even me, having served multiple tours in our most recent wars.”
He reminded his fellow legislators that although their weekend was long and laborious, with members trying and failing to pass an operating budget for the state, it paled in comparison to the days experienced by warrior helicopter pilots in the Vietnam War, never knowing if each day would be their last. “It’s that context that matters when we see the name on the bridge sign.”
The vote to rename the bridges passed, with only Rep. David Eastman and Rep. Chris Kurka voting against it. The two were being consistent because they had also earlier this session voted against the naming of the irene Webber Bridge in Cordova. The bill, HB 34, now goes to the Senate for consideration.