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Hartland Silver Star Recipient Reunited With Pilot He Saved

  • George Scott of Kissimmee, Fla., left, and Mark Abel of Hartland, Vt., right,  and a third member of their crew were injured when their reconnoissance helicopter was shot down in Vietnam in 1970. Scott is visiting Abel and Newport's American Legion Post 25 held an event for them Friday, June 27, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    George Scott of Kissimmee, Fla., left, and Mark Abel of Hartland, Vt., right, and a third member of their crew were injured when their reconnoissance helicopter was shot down in Vietnam in 1970. Scott is visiting Abel and Newport's American Legion Post 25 held an event for them Friday, June 27, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mark Abel of Hartland, Vt., back left, laughs with his fiancee Kathy Sheltra, front left, George Scott of Kissimmee, Fla., right, his wife Vera Scott, middle, and Post 25 president Brian Valley, back right, at American Legion Post 25 in Newport Friday, June 27, 2014. Abel and Scott met in Vermont 44 years after they were in a helicopter crash together in Vietnam.  <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Mark Abel of Hartland, Vt., back left, laughs with his fiancee Kathy Sheltra, front left, George Scott of Kissimmee, Fla., right, his wife Vera Scott, middle, and Post 25 president Brian Valley, back right, at American Legion Post 25 in Newport Friday, June 27, 2014. Abel and Scott met in Vermont 44 years after they were in a helicopter crash together in Vietnam.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mark Abel of Hartland, Vt., second from right, introduces Joe and Tina Walbridge, left, of Claremont, N.H., to George Scott of Kissimmee, Fla., right, at American Legion Post 25 in Newport, N.H., on  Friday, June 27, 2014. Abel and Scott were injured when their reconnoissance helicopter was shot down in Vietnam in 1970.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Mark Abel of Hartland, Vt., second from right, introduces Joe and Tina Walbridge, left, of Claremont, N.H., to George Scott of Kissimmee, Fla., right, at American Legion Post 25 in Newport, N.H., on Friday, June 27, 2014. Abel and Scott were injured when their reconnoissance helicopter was shot down in Vietnam in 1970.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • George Scott of Kissimmee, Fla., photographs a Budweiser sign welcoming him to American Legion Post 25 in Newport, N.H. Friday June 27, 2014. Scott was in New England visiting Mark Abel of Hartland, Vt. who he flew with in Vietnam. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    George Scott of Kissimmee, Fla., photographs a Budweiser sign welcoming him to American Legion Post 25 in Newport, N.H. Friday June 27, 2014. Scott was in New England visiting Mark Abel of Hartland, Vt. who he flew with in Vietnam.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • George Scott of Kissimmee, Fla., left, and Mark Abel of Hartland, Vt., right,  and a third member of their crew were injured when their reconnoissance helicopter was shot down in Vietnam in 1970. Scott is visiting Abel and Newport's American Legion Post 25 held an event for them Friday, June 27, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Mark Abel of Hartland, Vt., back left, laughs with his fiancee Kathy Sheltra, front left, George Scott of Kissimmee, Fla., right, his wife Vera Scott, middle, and Post 25 president Brian Valley, back right, at American Legion Post 25 in Newport Friday, June 27, 2014. Abel and Scott met in Vermont 44 years after they were in a helicopter crash together in Vietnam.  <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Mark Abel of Hartland, Vt., second from right, introduces Joe and Tina Walbridge, left, of Claremont, N.H., to George Scott of Kissimmee, Fla., right, at American Legion Post 25 in Newport, N.H., on  Friday, June 27, 2014. Abel and Scott were injured when their reconnoissance helicopter was shot down in Vietnam in 1970.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • George Scott of Kissimmee, Fla., photographs a Budweiser sign welcoming him to American Legion Post 25 in Newport, N.H. Friday June 27, 2014. Scott was in New England visiting Mark Abel of Hartland, Vt. who he flew with in Vietnam. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Newport — Before Wednesday, the last time Mark Abel and George Scott saw each other was in a hospital in Saigon, where they were being treated for the injuries they had suffered after their helicopter was shot down over the jungles of Vietnam.

Over the last few months, thanks to modern technology, they made contact through a series of Facebook connections and had spoken via Skype at least once.

But Wednesday was their first face-to-face meeting in more than 44 years.

“He called me last week and asked, ‘How are you doing?’ ” Abel, 63, said at a potluck reunion supper at the American Legion on Friday that was organized by the Women’s Auxiliary of Newport.

“I said, ‘Not too good. I’d like to see my pilot.’ ‘Well, I’m coming up,’ ” Scott told him.

Scott, 65, and his wife, Vera, left their home in Florida last Sunday and arrived at Abel’s doorstep in Hartland on Wednesday.

“What a surprise. I don’t have to tell you I was not dry-eyed to see him.” Abel said. “I can’t tell you what this means. After 44 years I got to see my pilot.”

Scott was straightforward when asked what it meant to see Abel.

“He saved not only his life but the observer (Mike Jones) and my life,” Scott said, remembering his crew chief’s heroic actions

Their story begins in 1968, when both volunteered for the Army right out of high school. Like many combat veterans, the circumstances that brought them together, along with observer Jones, of Las Vegas, seem altogether random.

Scott, from St. Charles, Ill., said he had a low draft number in the lottery system in place at that time, so instead of waiting to be drafted he enlisted in flight school and went off to training in August 1968. A year later he was sent to Vietnam and began flying light observation helicopters, whose mission was to fly low, spot the enemy and mark the spot with a smoke canister.

Then a Cobra, a larger helicopter capable of firing rockets, would fly in behind to take out the enemy positions.

Just how many missions Scott flew before that fateful day in 1970 he’s not sure. “You get an Air Medal for every 25 and I think I received 22 Air Medals,” Scott said.

Abel grew up on a small farm outside of Akron, Ohio, and said he always knew he would enter the military because his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were veterans. When two men from his high school, who graduated a year earlier, were killed, Abel knew it was time.

He first went to Germany and then to Vietnam where, as he describes it, he had a comfortable job as company clerk “processing out” soldiers in an air-conditioned office. After one too many came back with haggard looks, Abel said, he volunteered to fly.

“I saw all these guys coming back from the front. I just couldn’t stand to see their faces anymore,” Abel said.

He went to his company commander and said he wanted to be a scout gunner and crew chief. In December 1969, Abel got his wish and would fly more than 100 missions.

Jones, a mechanic, volunteered for the March 18, 1970, mission.

Scott, Abel and Jones were flying low over the trees searching for enemy positions with the Cobra high overhead. Abel, with a machine gun facing out the back, had the job of suppressing the enemy when the smoke was dropped.

“Normally the enemy would find us first,” Scott said. “We’d drop the smoke then skedaddle out of there and the Cobra would roll in with rockets.”

At one point in this mission, Scott recalls, they got a situation report from the Cobra and then Abel told him “ ‘I don’t know Mr. Scott, looks like there has been a lot of people on this trail just recently.’ Then I don’t remember anything from the last time I spoke to Mark to when I was on the ground and noticed an ant walking on my arm. We both shouted back and forth to each other that we were going to be OK.”

Scott believes they took a burst of fire from the front because both he and Jones had bullet wounds to the chest. Jones, he said, was groaning loudly in pain. “But we both knew, we weren’t going to be OK,” said Abel.

With enemy soldiers — Scott estimates more than 100 — in the immediate area, survival seemed unlikely. “We were dead,” Abel continued. “I’d say there was a 99 percent probability we were going to die or be POWs, but they don’t take wounded prisoners so my job was to take some of them with us.”

Scott said neither he nor Jones could do anything to defend themselves and Abel was their only means of defense.

“He was fighting against a very superior force,” said Scott, adding that about 40 or 50 enemy soldiers had come within 50 feet of the crash site. With his right should dislocated, Abel, used his left hand to load his M60 machine gun. “I snapped a belt together with 30 or 40 rounds and when the bad guys came, I shot them,” Abel said. “I said, well Lord, you are probably going to see us in a minute but you are going to have some visitors with us.”

Abel’s actions that day earned him the Silver Star and Purple Heart.

“Within seconds Specialist Abel downed three NVA soldiers and wounded several others,” reads a statement from Scout Platoon Leader Richard McKinnie, who said he observed Abel’s actions that went “above and beyond the call of duty.”

Abel was surprised that after he shot three enemy soldiers, the others began to fall back. “Then I heard the most wonderful sound I have ever heard in my life,” Abel said. “And that would be about 20 Huey helicopters coming with the infantry. They were coming to rescue us.”

With the Cobra firing and kicking up debris all around, it gave the rescuers enough time to hike in a mile to the three men and get them airlifted.

Scott estimates they were on the ground for more than an hour before being evacuated.

Scott was sent first to Japan, and when his collapsed lung was healed, he was flown stateside to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center Hospital. He remained in the Army and became a flight instructor, retiring in 1988 then moving to Florida about 10 years ago.

Abel recovered in a hospital in Japan and re-enlisted for two more years before his discharge. He moved to the area about 20 years ago, living in Newport, Goshen and Claremont before settling in Hartland. “I love New England. It is where my heart is.”

His fiancee, Kathy, began searching the Internet and first found Jones. One thing led to another before Scott and Abel made their connection.

Veronica Valley, president of the Auxiliary, quickly put together Friday’s reunion at the Legion, where Abel is a member. “I just thought it would be cool,” said Valley. “I know they have spoken, but to actually have them together is way better.”

They also invited Jones, even offering to pay his airfare, but Abel said he simply was not prepared to make the trip at this time.

Both Abel and Scott said time has healed a lot since those days, and the country now seems to recognize and respect the sacrifices of those who served in Vietnam.

“Mark said it best. Over the last 10 years, we’ve had more people shake our hands and tell us, ‘Welcome back,’ than we had in the previous 30,” Scott said.

Scott said the years have not diminished his memory of how close he came to dying.

“Mark saved my life. No one of us would be here today, my wife, my daughter, my grandson, without him.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.