Thetford graduate returns in style for Veteran’s Day — from the air in a Black Hawk

  • Thetford Elementary School students warm their hands on the Blackhawk helicopter after it landed at Thetford Academy on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, in Thetford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Phil Vietje a Thetford Academy alumnus and Chief Warrant Officer in the Vermont Army National Guard, helps Thetford Elementary School third-grader Benjamin Barton on with his flight vest after landing in a Blackhawk helicopter at Thetford Academy on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019 in Thetford, Vt. Hoping to try the vest on next is Nik Gioia, right, a fourth-grader at the elementary school. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Students watch as a Vermont Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter lands at Thetford Academy on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019 in Thetford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thetford Elementary School students react to a Vermont Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter landing at Thetford Academy on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019 in Thetford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/6/2019 10:04:55 PM

THETFORD HILL — Phil Vietje landed the mother of all show-and-tells at his alma mater Wednesday morning.

Twenty years after graduating from Thetford Academy with vague plans to spend his working life in mechanical engineering, Vietje returned with a medical-evacuation team from the Vermont Army National Guard, flying one of the Black Hawk helicopters the Guard uses on missions.

The students and faculty members of the academy and of neighboring Thetford Elementary School were waiting for him at the academy’s athletic fields, which the chief warrant officer circled once before setting down at the finish line of the cross-country course.

“The kids were sort of excited to hear he was coming, but it was one of those things where you don’t quite believe it until you see it,” TES teacher Ben LaRoche said while his fifth- and sixth-graders swarmed around the chopper and Vietje and his camouflage-uniformed crew. “To have a literal Black Hawk helicopter landing on the lawn is something else.”

It’s exactly the kind of reaction academy social-studies teacher Stacy Thurston Barton was hoping for when she recruited her fellow 1999 graduate, an Iraq war veteran who now serves as a flight instructor for the Guard, to liven up the academy’s annual Veterans Day recognition program.

“The idea came up during our 20-year reunion not long ago,” Barton said. “He had mentioned to me the impact serving in the military had had on him, and since I like to show the kids what Veterans Day is about, I thought this would be a nice tie-in.”

It impressed many of the students, including one elementary schooler who gasped “Whoa!” at Vietje’s observation that the Black Hawk weighs 18,000 pounds.

An academy middle schooler, meanwhile, wanted to know the level of firepower this Black Hawk packs.

“The only weapons we carry are Lt. Michael Neilin’s guns,” Vietje replied, grinning and pointing to his bicep-flexing co-pilot. “Show ’em, Lieutenant.”

Vietje witnessed the effects of weapons of war while rescuing fellow soldiers during a 2010-2011 tour in Iraq.

“It’s one of those things where you have great joys and great sadness,” Vietje said during an interview Tuesday night. “If you feel like you can help someone get home to their family, it’s one of the great joys you can have.”

Exhibit A for Vietje was “a kid in Anbar province who turned out to be from St. Albans. We sent him off with syrup.

“That seems to be our calling card.”

While ready to fly in war zones again if necessary, Vietje now spends most of his days flying over Vermont’s mountains and forests while showing Army chopper pilots the ropes of medical-evacuation work. Those duties can take them anywhere from flood zones to wildfires. He also helps prepare flight crews for specific rescue missions to disaster zones, such as Puerto Rico after the back-to-back hurricanes in 2017.

“We have a lot of extremely motivated, intelligent people,” Vietje said. “They have a big desire to be here.”

Vietje recalls no burning, or even flickering, desire to serve in the military, let alone to fly, while studying mechanical engineering his freshman year at the University of Vermont.

Then while taking the subsequent year off to figure out just what he wanted to do, he watched terrorists hijack passenger planes in Boston and New York and fly them into New York’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Inspired to join the Army National Guard, Vietje took an aptitude test that led to early assignments in civil engineering road building, demolition work and the like.

By 2006, he made sergeant and was invited to flight school for helicopter pilots. At the Army’s Fort Rucker, he found his calling.

“I got to zip over the farmland and the trees of southern Alabama,” Vietje recalled. “It was just an amazing feeling.”

It’s a feeling he can now exercise mostly close to his home in Richmond, Vt., where he and his wife, Uyen Phuong, are raising two sons, Chase and Colt.

“I don’t know if I’m an example, but it works well for people like me,” Vietje said Tuesday of service in the Guard. “There are unique opportunities that the military provides. This path worked out pretty well for me.”

Thetford Academy seventh-graders Connor Gaine and Madeleine Allen aren’t sure they want to follow Vietje into the military, but they wouldn’t rule it out after seeing him land in their backyard.

“That’s really awesome that somebody from our own school went off and did important stuff like this,” Gaine said. “It’s really amazing.”

“Flying a plane or a helicopter would be cool,” Allen added after sitting at the controls of the Black Hawk. “Watching him fly around our school and then land here in something like this, it’s crazy.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.

Correction

Thetford Academy graduate Phil Vietje flew a Vermont Army National Guard helicopter to his alma mater on Wednesday morning. An earlier version of this story reported an incorrect day of the week.




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