JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — For many, serving in the military is more than just a time in uniform. It’s a chance to train for a career that lasts a lifetime.

That was the case for Rick Cantley, a veteran who served his country flying helicopters in the Vietnam War and who is still flying high today.

“I got drafted in 1968 on my birthday,” Cantley said. He was 24 years old, in college at the University of Tennessee and married with a child on the way. Then the U.S. military called.

Photo: WJHL

The Army trained him, sent him to flight school and then sent him to Vietnam.

“I was in infantry,” Cantley said. “They were dying like flies back then.”

In Vietnam, Cantley flew Cobra helicopters, gunships supporting the troops on the ground.
Cantley says, compared to many, he had it good.

“We’d get out at first light and try to find the enemy,” he said. “We’d find them, and we’d call back, and they’d send people out to fight.”

While many of his comrades endured difficult conditions in jungle warfare, Cantley said the nature of his work afforded him some creature comforts and a bit more safety.

“Most nights, I slept in a cot,” he said. “The people who had it bad were the infantry. They were walking in the jungles on the ground. They were the ones who fought the war. We just supported them.”

Cantley came home in 1971 when some Vietnam veterans were encountering pushback and protests from Americans opposed to the war.

Cantley said he witnessed some of the anti-Vietnam War sentiment. “But that’s why we were over there, so they could do that. A lot of people don’t understand why we have a military. We do it so we can be free.”

After almost six years of active duty, Cantley was a seasoned helicopter pilot. He joined the Army Reserves and the National Guard and went on to a 36-year service career.

Cantley says that time in service also gave him something invaluable: a career in aviation.

“The thing about staying in the reserves, you got to fly for free,” Cantley said. “And they paid you to do it.”

Now, he teaches a new generation how to fly and instruct, and he looks back on his time in service with no regrets.

“I just always felt that if your government asked you to do something, you did it,” he said. “I did what my country asked. They told me to go over there, and I went.”