After War, It's The Families Who Deserve The Honor
by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jason Hale
November 10, 2020
I’ve lived across the street from Dennis and Melissa Stack for three years. As far as neighbors go, I couldn’t ask for a better couple to share a dirt road with. They are quiet, kind and always willing to lend a hand.
While both are retired, Melissa keeps busy working part-time at a local greenhouse and tends to the elaborate flower beds bursting with color, perfectly arranged across their 2.5-acre property and nestled outside a small Michigan town. Dennis, an Army veteran and retired mechanic, can be spotted through the trees working on projects or doing small engine repairs for those of us in the neighborhood who aren’t mechanically inclined.
Dennis Stack, a Vietnam veteran of the U.S. Army and former Crew Chief on a Bell UH-1 Iroquois Helicopter, outside his home in Michigan on November 7, 2020. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Hale)
Dennis served as a Crew Chief on a Bell UH-1 Iroquois Helicopter (commonly known as a ‘Huey’) in Vietnam over 50 years ago. In that role, he was responsible for the maintenance of the helicopter and making sure it was always mission capable, conducting pre and post-flight inspections as well as major inspections every 100 hours of flight time. While in the air, Dennis manned the M60-machine gun on the left side of the helicopter behind the pilot, so while scanning his sector for the enemy, he could also monitor the gauges and keep an eye on the cockpit instruments.
“We were an insertion helicopter, putting troops in and out of the jungle up in the mountains,” Dennis recalled. “We never knew what we were going to come against during the insertions…at the very least it would be small arms fire if not more, and most of the extractions we were picking up Soldiers who were getting hit and on the run…it was wild.”
As gently as I could, I asked how many close calls they had with that kind of mission and he replied without sharing my hesitation, “hundreds.” There was no mistaking the gravity of his answer by the look he wore on his face. “There were times we were flying into a hot LZ (landing zone), 4 or 5 times a day.” On top of the daily dangers of their flights, his base, which was located in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, was being hit with mortar fire every night.
Dennis was in Vietnam from April of 1969 to May 1970 with the 1st Aviation, 268th Battalion, 61st Assault Helicopter Company. When he returned home he dealt with some of the same struggles that only those who have faced combat can know.
“I had a hard time adjusting…and I still do…I can’t be around a lot of people; not that I can’t work with other people, but I prefer to work alone and avoid confrontation,” Dennis explained. “Not a day goes by that you don’t think of the war, think of how many times you were barely missed, or think of those who didn’t make it back,” he added.
Dennis also faced some of the horrific travesties that were all too familiar during the Vietnam era when he got back to the United States.
“I was chased down the aisle and spit at and called ‘baby killer’ while getting on the plane to fly home while in uniform,” he said shaking his head. For years he never told anyone that he was a veteran because “we were looked down on.”
Today, it’s a much different reception for our service members returning from wars, who are viewed as heroes. “That’s music to my ears,” Dennis said, as his excitement rose above his normally quiet nature while he talked about how it’s ‘cool’ to be a veteran in today’s culture…“I’m so glad that’s turned around,” he added.
But Dennis isn’t one to take advantage of this change in our culture or to tell others that he’s a veteran. You probably won’t see him wearing a veteran hat or asking for a veteran discount at the store. Not that he’s ashamed of being a veteran or doesn’t appreciate the gestures; but after so many years of pushing it down and not talking about his service, it’s just not something he’s comfortable with yet. “There were people I worked with for 20 years that didn’t know I was a veteran. It was just something you didn’t talk about…but that started to change around Desert Storm,” Dennis explained.
“Veterans Day is just another day to me because it isn’t about me. For me, it’s like Memorial Day where I think about those who didn’t make it back,” he said.
As we discussed his PTSD from his time in Vietnam, Dennis told me he didn’t deal with the usual vices of drugs or alcohol that affect some veterans. But his vice was closing people out, including his family.
“I could go days at a time where I didn’t talk to my family…and I really didn’t mean to,” he said with a hint of guilt in his voice.
“I think it’s the families that deserve the honor and the awards. They’re the ones who live in worry and wonder while we’re deployed and then have to deal with a changed person when we get home,” he said. “My family had to learn to live with me, not the other way around…they did the hard work dealing with the effects of the war.”
Back then, his family also had to deal with the reaction of others discovering that he was a veteran. “This was years ago, but my wife lost friends when they found out I was a veteran. They just stopped coming around,” he explained.
Melissa’s brother also served in Vietnam and she has a difficult time talking about what Soldiers went through since it’s so personal to her. “My wife cringes when it comes to what we went through, so we really don’t talk about it much,” Dennis said.
Throughout our conversation, it was clear that Dennis does not suffer from a victim’s mentality or blame others for the effects of war. He is also very humble and cognizant of what others have had to deal with, especially his family and the families of those who lost loved ones. He took the greatest lesson learned through his time in the Army: doing your job as if others lives’ depended on it; and has lived by that for the last five decades.
I’ve been incredibly grateful to have the chance to get to know Dennis these last three years and I’ve been thankful for the stories he’s shared with me along the way. My experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t come anywhere close to what he went through in Vietnam, or when he returned home, and I’m thankful to have a fellow veteran live across the street. And even though Dennis doesn’t feel like he deserves recognition on this Veterans’ Day, I’m happy that I get the chance to give a small glimpse of his story and thank him and his family for THEIR service to our country.
As our country takes pause to thank our veterans this year, let’s make sure we also take the time to thank their families…that’s the recognition that Dennis would want to see.
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