Breckenridge Texan

Vietnam War helicopter pilot speaks to Breckenridge history students

Vietnam War helicopter pilot speaks to Breckenridge history students
May 31
16:34 2021

By Carla McKeown/Breckenridge Texan

Last Wednesday, some of Breckenridge High School’s history classes had a chance to learn about the Vietnam War from a man with first-hand experience: Doug Petersen, who flew an air ambulance for the U.S. Army in Vietnam.

Doug Petersen visited Breckenridge last week to talk about his experiences as a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

Petersen, who lives Fort Worth now, was invited to speak in Breckenridge by Ricky Stober, whose “RWS Military Museum” exhibit is on display at the Breckenridge Fine Arts Center through June 15.

Petersen gave a multi-media presentation to the students, showing them photos from his time in Vietnam and a video of his TEDx talk in San Antonio a few years ago. He also had with him his old plastic-coated tactical map of Vietnam that he used to plot his missions during his 11 months in combat.

Before going to Vietnam, Petersen was stationed at Fort Wolters in Mineral Wells. Then, he finished up flight school in Alabama. Once in Vietnam, he flew helicopters to pick up wounded soldiers and take them to hospitals. The medical helicopters Petersen flew were called “Dust-Offs,” he explained, because of the dust they kicked up when they took off and landed. Although some of the helicopters in Vietnam had dual duty and were equipped with machine guns, the Dust-offs were strictly for medical transport and had only a .38 revolver onboard for “patient protection,” he told the students.

“‘So others may live,’ that was our motto,” Petersen said. “That’s the reason we existed in Vietnam. So others may live. That was our mantra, that was why we were there.”

One of the hardest things for him to grasp when he first started flying in Vietnam was why he was targeted by the Vietcong, Petersen said.

“Think about this…I’m 21 years old — just a little older than you are — and I’m flying a multi-million dollar helicopter in a combat zone, and there is some guy on the ground that wants to kill me. I don’t get it,” Petersen said. “What did I do now, right? I’m just out there trying to save lives. The red crosses did not stop the Vietcong from shooting at us, even though the Geneva Convention says that they shouldn’t shoot ambulances, medical evacuation. They didn’t care. That’s the hardest thing to do at the time… trying to figure out why someone was trying to kill me. We would take multiple hits from an AK-47. That was just, just another day at the office.”

Petersen served in the U.S. Army for 20 years, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer 4. He still has his dog tags, which he keeps with his grandfather’s World War I dog tags.

After the formal speech was over, the students had an opportunity to visit with Petersen, as well as to view some of Stober’s military collection.

U.S. Army Veteran Doug Petersen showed students the plastic-coated map that he used to plot missions when he flew on helicopter rescues in the Vietnam War. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

Ricky Stober, left, brought some items from his military collection to show Breckenridge history students last week. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

Breckenridge High School teacher Calvin Best, left, and his students pose for a picture with U.S. Army Veteran Doug Petersen, center, after Petersen spoke to them last week about his experiences as a Dust-Off pilot, flying medical evacuation missions during the Vietnam War. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

Cutline, top photo: U.S. Army Veteran Doug Petersen gave Breckenridge High School history students a first-hand account of the Vietnam War when he spoke with them last week. Petersen spent 11 months in combat as a medical evacuation helicopter pilot. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

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