Former Wash. Army pilot surprised by Vietnam War medal

VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) A former combat helicopter pilot has gone home with the Vietnam War-era medal he waited 44 years to receive.

Aaron Rich was shot down on a recovery mission over South Vietnam on March 2, 1968. He was pulled from his helicopter and dragged to an air ambulance.

Rich had just picked up a load of soldiers when a machine gun burst hit the helicopter. A bullet went through a double-layer of armor plate next to his seat, passing through his left leg, breaking the femur, and then striking his right leg, breaking that femur as well.

"There was a lot of enemy fire at the time all over the place," said Don Torrini, who piloted the rescue helicopter that took Rich from the battlefield.

Rich, of Camas, was so badly injured that he never returned to his unit. That slowed the process of awarding him a medal.

"Under the normal routine, his medals would have caught up with him," said Don Ruskauff, who helped with Rich's rescue. "It fell through the cracks, and Aaron never got recognition for all the time he flew."

Rich's wife, Georgia, worked out a plan to get the medal without alerting Rich: She told him their grandson was working on a project about his Army service.

"I lied to Aaron, told him our grandson is doing a report in humanities class on your experience in Vietnam. Do you have anything you could provide he could use?" Georgia Rich said.

Georgia Rich submitted his combat records to their congressional office.

The Columbian reports Rich received an Army Air Medal recognizing 692 hours of combat flying on Friday, part of a surprise orchestrated by his wife at his grandson's middle school.

Torrini, Ruskauff and several other men veterans of Rich's 281st Assault Helicopter Company joined them. The medal's ribbon bore a pin with the numeral "8," showing that he earned multiple Air Medals.

"Aaron was part of our team: a very tight team," Torrini said. "We're a brotherhood until the day we die."