ERWIN, Tenn. (WJHL) – Those who step into Thomas Reeves’ office at his Erwin home will find walls full of certificates and accolades from his time in the service, including five valor awards.
Reeves recounted some of the missions that earned him those awards to News Channel 11.
“I picked them up living and dead,” said Reeves, a retired Master Army Aviator. “I mean, I have flown missions where I’ve looked back at wounded soldiers or injured soldiers in the back of my helicopter, and I’ve been the last person that they’ve ever seen before they closed their eyes and died.”
He might have stopped being an Army pilot in 1978, but he said he’ll never retire from rescuing people.
“Either way, I’m helping people in some cases,” Reeves said. “I’m rescuing people from bad decisions they made about when they enrolled in a particular Medicare program.”
Reeves works for United Healthcare and helps people understand their Medicare plans. But before he got into insurance, he flew helicopters in the Army.
“You never knew what operations gave you a mission early in the morning or the night before,” he said. “[You never knew] where are you going to be flying, what you’re going to be doing, whether you’re going to be in med-evac, where you’re going to be flying a general or VIP around, or where are you going to be hauling soldiers into a combat zone.”
He wasn’t drafted to Vietnam but ended up serving two tours there. However, several missions on March 21 (and technically March 22) of 1967 gained him the Distinguished Service Cross, one of the highest honors for those in combat.
The first was flying a colonel around to different battle sites.
“It was like being in the movies,” he said. “I could see and hear the firing. I could see them rushing through the elephant grass and heading towards the river, firing as they went carrying this one guy that had malaria. Long story short, he got out. We got him loaded on my door. Gunner was firing the M-16 machine gun to repel the enemy.”
That’s what gained him the Air Medal for Valor. After that, he got the call that the enemy was encroaching on another group and they needed help.
“It was obviously a young man, a kid, [an 18, 19 or 20-year-old] draftee in the infantry and his captain had been killed, and he was crying and screaming for help,” Reeves recalled. “And I could hear him tell the battalion commander that they were surrounded. You could hear the firing in the background.”
Reeves had to make several trips through the thick foliage to a small landing zone to deliver ammunition and supplies and help additional soldiers get through.
“Somehow a fire had started. I don’t know where from, the exhaust on our jet engine or what, but a fire started and I had to pick them up. We hovered enough to blow it out,” said Reeves. “The blades on that aircraft were 47 feet long and blew it out as they were coming from either side in the bushes and elephant grass to get on.”
After that, he started making aerial radio relays for companies on the ground through enemy and friendly crossfire.
Reeves then began making multiple trips to pick up critically wounded soldiers from one site and started guiding another helicopter to the landing zone.
“This enemy soldier had gotten in position waiting for me to come back. I had moved away. The med-evac chopper had pulled into place all four crew members. They were full of fuel, he hit them with a rocket in the bottom of the aircraft, and it blew up tremendously, exploded.”
Reeves found the mortar enemy and helped bring in attack helicopters to take them out. He logged 17 hours of flight time in that 20-hour day. He also spent time in the Tennessee National Guard as a pilot.