We’ve had the privilege to be able to sit down with a number of veterans who have represented our country and the veteran community well. Too often it seems, that only the negative side of the veteran community gets attention these days, while the vast majority is doing tremendous work both in uniform and when they leave active military service.
The Vietnam veteran we spoke to recently, Ron Hope is another example of an individual that served his country well during a time of an unpopular war and was severely wounded in combat. His life after his injuries is an inspirational one that we can all agree is the kind of story we should be reading more of. He’s also a longtime member of the DAV and has dedicated his time to them and to our veterans.
Mr. Hope was born in West Texas. He grew up on a ranch and dreamed of being a pilot from a young age. But opportunities were rare for a young man in that area of the country then. “There weren’t many opportunities for someone to seek or find pilot training,” he said.
After graduating from high school in Del Rio, Hope was in his third semester of college when he learned that he was about to be drafted. He immediately began looking around for his options believing that enlisting for a career field he wanted was a better alternative than being drafted and having one dictated to him. What he really wanted to do was fly.
Because he hadn’t finished his degree, the Air Force was out of the question and so was the Navy and the Marine Corps. But the Army had the Warrant Officer Training Program for rotary-wing pilots. He spoke with a recruiter, took and passed all of his tests and was accepted into the Warrant Officer program in 1968.
He went through the basic Warrant Program in Mineral Wells, Texas, about 30 miles west of Ft. Worth. (Mineral Wells had been a big Army Air Corps base in World War II before being shut down in the early 1970s.) He spent the first four months of the Warrant program there and was then sent to Ft. Rucker, AL for flight training.
In early 1969 after completing his flight training and becoming a WO1, he arrived in Vietnam in Cam Ranh Bay and was assigned to III Corps at the Quần Lợi base outside of An Loc and near the “fishhook” area of Cambodia. It was the northernmost LZ before the Cambodian border. Later this base would be used as the staging area for the Cambodia incursion of 1970.
He was assigned to B Co. of the 227th Assault Helicopter Co. After several months there, they were moved farther south. Besides performing daily helicopter assaults, the helicopters would also patrol the rivers.
It was on July 15, 1969, where his aircraft crashed. It was unsure at the time whether he was shot down or whether the crash was due to a mechanical malfunction. As Hope says, “there was no way to tell if it was from enemy ground fire, the helicopter was totally destroyed.”
He added, “we were coming back to extract a company that we had put into this LZ about three days earlier, and they (infantry) never really got a foothold in a place called Song Be. The NVA really owned the entire area.”
“We had just refueled and were coming in to pick people up, I was at about 800 feet and I heard an extremely loud bang and the aircraft started shaking violently,” he said. “From there to the ground was kind of a blur,” as he tried to regain control of the bird plummeting from the sky. About 100 feet off the ground, he lost total control of the aircraft and it smashed into the ground into a fireball.
“I ended up with a couple of broken legs, my left arm was extended about 8-10 inches away from my body but it never did break the skin.” All of the nerves of his arm were crushed; he equated it to getting hit with an anvil. His left arm was flailed, both legs were broken and he suffered burns on over 50 percent of his body, some of them third-degree.
After being stabilized in a Vietnam-based MASH unit, he was sent to Japan where he remained for only about a week. Hope was then transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio where the vast majority of military burn victims are taken. He spent the next nine months there.
Hope had to endure countless surgeries and spent six months in traction. “It was at this time [early 1970], that they were transferring active-duty soldiers from military hospitals to VA medical centers nearest to their homes to save on bed space,” he said. He ended up at the VA hospital in Big Spring, TX which was close to his home. Still unable to walk well, he had to go to daily physical therapy. Hope had been in traction so long that both his knees and hips weren’t functioning well at all.
His arm was damaged severely and he was unable to use it from the time of his crash in 1969 until 1972. A doctor who was treating Hope suggested that his mobility would increase if he amputated the arm. During the summer of 1972, he went to Albuquerque, NM and after consulting with doctors there, his arm was amputated at the shoulder, but they fused the humerus head back into the AC socket so that he’d have something to attach a prosthetic arm to. He now uses a prosthetic hook and not the hand — he thought that the prosthetic hand looked stupid and isn’t as functional.
He was discharged from the Army in April 1970. In 1971, he was finally able to walk without assistance, but he still was not able to flex either knee close to 90 degrees. He knew he’d never be able to fly helicopters again so he went back to college. Hope graduated with a bachelor of science degree in Business Administration with a Marketing minor from Tarleton State University (part of Texas A&M) in 1976. He started a real estate gig with a friend but wasn’t happy and missed the camaraderie of the military.
“I made contact with nearly every combat veteran within 50 miles of where I lived,” he said. He added that he missed the regimen and the discipline that the military provided. That’s when a friend of his from the VA hospital in Big Spring, told him that the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) were looking for disabled vets and that they would provide all of the necessary training. He jumped at the chance.
In August of 1979, Hope went to work for the DAV and despite his injuries considered himself among the most fortunate people in the country. “I was extremely fortunate,” he said. “I got to work in a field that I loved and it brought me back to my second-family that I loved, the military and veterans and I worked there for 31 years.”
In 2010, he was forced to retire from the DAV as he became the primary caregiver for his mom. In 2010, he was living in Winston-Salem, NC and was running the DAV office there. After three years, at the urging of his daughter, he moved his mom to a nursing home in Winston-Salem to be closer to her.
Hope was feeling lost without the interaction of the veterans, “I was probably the most discombobulated person for those first two years,” he said. After working with veterans, their dependents, and survivors for 31 years, it was as much a part of him as anything he’d ever done.
He got the opportunity to go back to the DAV. He ran for national office, was elected, and served another four years. Hope became the National Commander of the DAV in 2014. He retired from day-to-day work in 2015, but still helps veterans with their claims work. He helps channel vets in need toward the national service officers either in Winston-Salem or if the vet is from another state to the national service officer from their area.
Service to the veterans is the calling card for Hope and the DAV. “We all understand where the veteran is coming from because we’ve all been there,” he said. “It is all about service to your country, and when you receive those injuries and disabilities, they are with you for the rest of your life…even if you totally recover. Those injuries are still with you. And as time goes on, I’m amazed at how difficult emotional disabilities are to deal with as compared to physical disabilities.”
He added that unless you’ve been there, it is very difficult to talk to veterans who have seen and experienced the horrors of war. With more and more double and triple amputees surviving on the battlefield today, because of the improvements in combat medicine and the rapidity of Medevac, an entirely new way of treatment is required.
Despite his injuries, he has continued to fly, but no longer able to fly helicopters he transitioned to fixed-wing aircraft, where the hand doesn’t work as well as a hook. He’s been flying fixed-wing aircraft for the past 25 years and likes to fly “at least once a week if not more,” he said.
As an area supervisor for the DAV for his last 10 years there, he’d have to travel to different states and visit different sites to keep the service officers up with their training that never stops. So, he had the advantage of being able to fly to many of his offices, which cut down on his travel time and gave him the opportunity to get back up in the sky, which he loves.
Ron Hope is still flying high and is another example of and epitomizes what national service means.
The DAV is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2020. Each year, DAV (Disabled American Veterans) helps more than one million veterans and their families get the benefits they’ve earned. To learn more, visit www.DAV.org.