Cleve Pickens was not prepared for the phone call he received.
“This guy just called me out of the blue and said, ‘You don’t know me, but my name is Lawrence Seeger, and you saved my life. Without you, I wouldn’t be here.’”
In an instant, Pickens’ mind traveled back 53 years ago to his stint in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. He was a UH-1 Huey pilot, and his job was to save lives — the lives of rangers whose names he never captured as he flew them from their crash sites to the Army hospital.
“I never met them,” Pickens said. “When I picked them up and dropped them at the hospital, they got off, and that’s the last I saw of them.”
That second assignment in Vietnam lasted one year.
Pickens, now living on Lake Dora in Tavares, was born and raised in Winter Garden. He graduated from Lakeview High School in 1962, worked on the construction of the Florida’s Turnpike for two years and then spent the next 20 years in the Army. He served twice in Vietnam — once in the infantry and a second time in 1970, after flight school, with the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles.
He was an aircraft commander and went in as a first lieutenant and returned home a captain. He was a major when he retired in 1984.
‘YOU’RE MY HERO’
Seeger and his wife traveled from Canton, New York, to Central Florida, and the two soldiers met three weeks ago in an emotional reunion full of tears, memories and gratitude.
“He said, ‘You have no idea what it means,’” Pickens said. “His wife was sitting here, and she said, ‘I wouldn’t be here either and neither would our kids.’”
The Seegers have three children and many grandchildren.
The hero and the survivor relived the day their lives briefly connected, and they both remembered it like it was yesterday.
Seeger was flying in a Chinook helicopter that was returning after dropping off supplies when it was shot down in Laos. Pickens heard the call that the helicopter crew was in trouble, radioed for help and took off.
“I said, ‘I’m going in; I’m going after them,’” Pickens said.
He said when an aircraft that large is shot down, the North Vietnamese Army will be at the crash site immediately, so several U.S. choppers were sent out to assist in the rescue of the seven men aboard.
Seeger told Pickens he had spent years researching that day to find the pilot who saved his life.
“He knew the date it happened, and he looked it up, he knew the unit, he just didn’t know me,” Pickens said. “He found out I was flying that day and picked them up, and so he finally called me and said, ‘Listen, you don’t know me, but I know you.’ He said, ‘You’re my hero, and I want to meet you.’ I said, ‘I want to meet you, too.’ I’ve never been able to talk to someone I picked up.”
It's rare for a pilot to receive a Distinguished Flying Cross medal, Pickens said, but he returned home with three. His air medals totaled 28, and he earned multiple other medals as well.
“I was a little crazy,” he said. “I went to the commander when I got there and I said, ‘Sir, I’ve got a request, and I would sure like you to honor it. … I don’t want any married men flying on my helicopter.’ … They’re too cautious. All of us were single.”
Pickens described what it was like in the Vietnamese jungle.
“It was pretty bad,” he said. “Flying a Huey, you really had to go out and pick up rangers, pick up a lot of wounded people, no arms, no legs, stepped on mines. We would pick them up and take them to 63rd hospital, it was a M*A*S*H (mobile Army surgical hospital) unit. The doctors would run out with stretchers and take them off my chopper, and I would hover over. We would pick up a fire hose and we would wash the blood out of our chopper, and then we’d head back out for some more. It was a daily thing to do.”
It's not easy to land a helicopter in a jungle, Pickens said, so he oftentimes had to hover over the people he was rescuing, drop ropes and wait for the men to tie onto the rope. He remembers one particular day when he was being shot at by the enemy and didn’t have time to completely lift the men into the helicopter.
“I just took off, and they were going through the trees,” Pickens said. “They were all scratched up … but when we got back, they came over to hug my neck. It shocked me. It was another one of those days where we had to do what we had to do. They were after them and if they had caught up with them, they wouldn’t be here. And it happened a lot.”
FRIENDS FOR LIFE
Pickens has many mementos from his days in the Vietnam War. His scrapbook is full of certificates. He has a handwoven flag made by one of the local villagers. A Newsweek magazine filled pages of photos and descriptions of “the helicopter war.” Several Orlando newspaper articles chronicle Pickens’ unit.
And now, after 53 years, he has added something else to his memory bank: a friend for life.