Aside from the obvious expertise in having a PhD in biology, Heckman served the Air Force as a pilot flying missions over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War from 1965-1968. Thereafter Dr. Heckman continued to serve “we the people” by his work with the US Forest Service and in his courageous act in being a “whistleblower” when he recognized government misconduct.
This is his story, as he tells it to us at www.CorruptWA.com, about prejudice, retribution and retaliation by public servants who behave as “kings” to protect their own and retaliate against the best that America embodies in Dr. Heckman.
Dr. Heckman’s Story — PART ONE: Young adult life.
Dr. Charles Heckman was born in Queens, New York, in 1941. After winning a New York State scholarship, attended Manhattan College where he majored in biology and participated in its very active Air Force ROTC program. The college was run by the Christian Brothers and has been rated among the top 10 small colleges in the United States.
Heckman’s interest in biology extended beyond simply graduating college, his goal was to do advanced studies in various parts of the world. Off campus, Heckman joined the Metropolitan New York Herpetological Society, and was elected its president during his junior year. The president before him became a professor of herpetology at Cornell University.
Upon graduation in 1963, designated a ‘distinguished graduate of the ROTC program’, Charles received a regular commission in the Air Force, rather than a reserve commission, as reward for academic excellence. During those years, Manhattan College graduated more officers commissioned through its ROTC program than large universities, such as Yale and Harvard.
Entering the Air Force as a regular officer, his pilot training began with Primary and Basic Pilot Training at Laughlin AFB, Del Rio, Texas, from January through November, 1964. This was followed by Survival Training during December, 1964, at Stead AFB, Nevada, and Advanced Pilot Training in the C-130 from January to April at Seward AFB, Tennessee. During April of that year Dr. Heckman left for Okinawa to begin operational flying as a co-pilot in the C-130 at Naha AB; and flying 18 months to many other bases in East and Southeast Asia.
His next assignment was as a forward air controller flying O-1E and O-1F aircraft in Vietnam. But first, training in the O-1 aircraft at Hurlbert Field on Eglin AFB, Florida, followed by Jungle Survival Training in the Philippines in late December, 1966. Following his tour as forward air controller for the 9th Republic of Korea Division, usually flying out of Nha Trang AB, was assigned to the U.S. Army 3rd of the 25th Division at Duc Pho. This unit was part of Operation Oregon near Chu Lai Airbase. When Operation Oregon was disbanded and replaced by the Americal Division, Dr. Heckman was assigned to the Vietnamese Army units in Tuy Hoa Province.
In January of 1968, Dr. Heckman began flying the O-2 with a group assigned to the southernmost part of North Vietnam running from the DMZ north as far as the city of Dong Hoi. Later, the area was extended as far north as Vinh. Because of heavy anti-aircraft fire, which shot down one O-2 on the day Dr. Heckman arrived, they were prohibited from flying over land along the coastal plain. Instead their missions were to fly along the shore over the water or over the mountains to the west. When the weather did not permit flights over those parts they provided air support to the besieged Marine base at Khe Sanh or flew over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos, along which many trucks were bringing supplies to the North Vietnamese units surrounding Khe Sanh.
We asked Dr. Heckman what motivated him to risk everything for “we the people” in volunteering for military service, he said…
Your question is one that would not have had to be asked in the United States before the Vietnam War. There was an understanding among Americans that in times of danger to the country, it was a duty to serve in its defense. My motivation for service in Vietnam was the fact that it was the right thing to do. Every American has a responsibility to contribute to the defense of the country, and with the Soviet Union and China united at the time, we had a powerful coalition of nuclear powers against us. The United States supported the independence of the former colonies of Western European countries, and we were doing our best to keep them from being gobbled up by an expansive Soviet empire. That empire did not break up until 1991. In Vietnam, I never thought about risking my life. Like Xenophon, the author of the ancient Greek book Anabasis, observed during his service in Ancient Persia, God decides who lives and dies, and any attempts to seek safety and security will not affect a person’s future, unless negatively.
What I was doing in Vietnam was very satisfying because I could see to it that many truckloads of weapons and ammunition of all kinds were destroyed before they could be used against American, South Vietnamese, and allied military units in South Vietnam. I also got to suppress the artillery fire against the Marines south of the DMZ by finding the North Vietnamese artillery positions and seeing to it they were destroyed by air strikes, naval artillery, or artillery from the Marine fire bases south of the DMZ.
I extended my tour of duty again and returned to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam system assigned to the provinces of Thu’a Thien and Quang Tri. I was able to continue finding trucks [loaded with weapons] in the A Shau Valley, which was located in Thu’a Thien Province.
In summary, my service in the Air Force was something that my contemporaries considered a basic moral duty of Americans. Five years after I began my active duty, the attitude had changed radically. Some people opposed the war because military service would interfere with their personal career plans or place them in danger. However, most veterans I know were not influenced by contemporary opinion. They would have served in any case. Vietnam Veterans of America reported that more than 75% of those who served in Vietnam were volunteers, and, in my opinion, most of them would have volunteered whether or not there had been a draft.
Skulls of former Khmer Rouge soldiers
Above is a cabinet filled with the skulls of former Khmer Rouge soldiers, who were forced to denounce each others as spies for the CIA, the KGB, or the Vietnamese after the Communist victory in Indochina in 1975. Of the 40,000 men, women, and babies that were interned in the prison, 2 survived. According to the Information provided by the Museum, about 3,000,000 Cambodians were slaughtered throughout the country. The population of Cambodia at the time was estimated to be a little more than 6,000,000. Ironically, the purged Communist soldiers are the only ones whose deaths are memorialized by the Genocide Museum.
In total Dr. Heckman flew 1897 combat hours over North and South Vietnam and Eastern Laos. He was awarded the following recognition for his service.
After Dr. Heckman’s honorable discharge in 1968, at the rank of Captain, he returned to Southeast Asia to fly as a civilian pilot and perform research for his master’s degree and then his doctoral dissertation, which were published.
You can read more of
Dr. Heckman’s experiences in Cambodia in his book,
The Phnom Penh Airlift — Confessions of a Pig Pilot