WASHINGTON– In honor of Veterans Day, U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR) recognized the service and sacrifice of Vietnam veteran Robert Fureigh in ‘Salute to Veterans,’ a series recognizing the military service of Arkansans.
Fureigh spent his early childhood near Quitman on his family’s farm. His father, a World War II veteran, raised corn and cotton. “He referred to himself as a dirt farmer,” Fureigh said.
He didn’t have much, but fondly remembers the weekly tradition of joining his family listening to the Grand Ole Opry Saturday nights on the radio.
After his dad got a job with the Department of Veterans Affairs, his family initially moved in with his grandma in Little Rock and then moved around in the community.
His father’s emphasis on doing well in school set Fureigh on a path to pursuing higher education. His guidance counselor at Little Rock Central High School encouraged him to apply for scholarships including a NAVY ROTC scholarship. Unfortunately, the Navy dismissed Fureigh late in the process because the vision in his right eye did not its meet requirements. “They should have moved that physical up to phase one,” he said
He continued to explore scholarship opportunities and learned the Army had launched its first four-year ROTC scholarship. He applied and was accepted.
Fureigh earned a degree in civil engineering from Tulane University in 1969. Within hours of graduating, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant with orders to Fort Wainwright, Alaska and temporary duty en route at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
His real passion was flying. While he wasn’t able to pass the flight physical because of his depth perception, he continued to fuel his interest in aviation at Fort Belvoir. “I would get up early on Saturday morning and take the Army bus a few miles to Davison Army Airfield and hang out with flight ops” where he would fly on any Huey with available space.
Some of the troops began to recognize him and assumed Fureigh had orders for flight school. When they learned of his depth perception challenges, they offered to give him a new flight physical. With some coaching, he passed the physical.
He was quickly enrolled in flight school. “It was a real highlight when on the rare occasions a Huey would land at Fort Wolters,” Fureigh said. “We’d look inside and I’d think there is no way in the world that I would fly this monster.” Later in his training, he learned to pilot the Huey and eventually was assigned to fly it in combat.
As was customary at the time, Fureigh went to Vietnam as an individual and was assigned a unit when he arrived in-country. “There is some tension during the in-processing for a couple of days,” Fureigh said of soldiers wondering where they would be assigned.
Fureigh learned his orders were for 176th Assault Helicopter Company, 14th Combat Aviation Battalion, 16th Combat Aviation Group in Chu Lai. When he found it on the map, he saw it was in I-Corps, the zone where “nobody wanted to go to.”
“I wasn’t all that concerned. I really had no sense of mortality and probably part of me was happy I was going to I-Corps. It’s not going to be boring in I-Corps.”
The 176th AHC had two platoons of Hueys and a platoon of Huey Gunships. After flying Hueys for two months, he was invited to switch to the Gunship platoon.
Fureigh’s Huey assignments included flying resupply and spray missions and inserting troops for long-range recon patrols. When the Gunship platoon wasn’t providing close-fire support on combat assaults, two teams were on standby (quick reaction) for supporting troops in enemy contact.
“When we flew, we fought. We engaged the enemy,” Fureigh said.
He faced intense combat during Operation Lam Son 719 - the invasion of Laos. 110 helicopters were shot down in the six-week battle.
“I didn’t feel like I had a good chance of ever seeing the world again. One day at a time. Each day is people getting shot down. Captured. Killed,” he said.
Despite the constant danger he lived in for one year, for Fureigh, the worst part of Vietnam was coming home. “My generation of Vietnam veterans were rejected. Totally. I couldn’t get a job.”
He wasn’t able to receive the help he needed from the Veterans Administration and was denied support from veteran service organizations.
“I was getting this feedback that I wasn’t right,” Fureigh said. “It’s overwhelming and it’s coming from every direction and it’s continuous.”
He finally found the support he needed from the Arkansas Army National Guard. After being on the waiting list for three years, he joined the Guard where he learned a lot of his fellow guard aviators faced the same experiences when they returned home. “That was the perfect salve for confirmation that there is nothing wrong with me.”
He flew in the guard for 20 years and retired as a Chief Warrant Officer in 1994.
Today, he continues to fly the Huey as a volunteer copilot with the organization American Huey 369. He also serves as treasurer of a chapter of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association and authors an article for its national magazine.
Fureigh remains active in veterans advocacy as a life member of American Legion Post 74 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9095, as well as the Arkansas Veterans Coalition and the AARP Veterans Team. He’s constantly working to make the lives of veterans better.
“If I’m awake I’m usually doing something related to veterans and military,” he said.
“I’m grateful for Robert’s service to our nation and the positive attitude he has maintained in the face of the adversity he experienced. He serves as a reminder that we made a promise to the men and women who served our nation and we must fulfill our obligation to take care of their needs and support their transition to civilian life. His commitment exemplifies the lifelong efforts by our nation’s troops to take care of their fellow warriors. I’m pleased to help capture and preserve his memories,” Boozman said.
Boozman will submit Fureigh’s entire interview to the Veterans History Project, an initiative of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center to collect and retain the oral histories of our nation’s veterans.