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45 years after being shot down, pilot finally gets the Purple Heart

MIKE OWEN

mowen@ledger-enquirer.com

Video: 45 years after being shot down, pilot finally gets the Purple Heart

On June 10, 1971, U.S. Army Capt. Robert “Bobby” Goolsby was piloting a C Model Hughey helicopter in Vietnam on a rescue mission to help out a platoon of Rangers when he was shot down, severely injured and almost died in the burning wreckage. Fort
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On June 10, 1971, U.S. Army Capt. Robert “Bobby” Goolsby was piloting a C Model Hughey helicopter in Vietnam on a rescue mission to help out a platoon of Rangers when he was shot down, severely injured and almost died in the burning wreckage. Fort

On June 10, 1971, U.S. Army Capt. Robert “Bobby” Goolsby was piloting a C Model Hughey helicopter in Vietnam on a rescue mission to help out a platoon of Rangers when he was shot down, severely injured and almost died in the burning wreckage.

Forty-five years later, he got a Purple Heart.

In spite of suffering severe facial lacerations, a crushed lumbar vertebrae, dislocated shoulder and knee, several ribs separated from my sternum, fractured cheek bones and a severed lower jaw (on both sides) Army bureaucracy kept him from officially being awarded the medal.

That changed today, when U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland came to Columbus to award the long-overdue medal to Goolsby during a ceremony at the VFW Hall on Victory Drive. A member of Westmoreland’s staff, James Ruvalcaba, was instrumental in helping cut through the red tape and bureaucracy that had prevented Goolsby from getting the medal. Ruvalcaba, too, was a combat helicopter pilot in Iraq, though he was a Marine pilot.

Goolsby said he had been unofficially awarded the Purple Heart while in the hospital recovering from his injuries, but that the paperwork had somehow not gotten processed. Years later, when he was looking over his release papers, he noticed the medal was not listed.

“And if something isn’t on that form, it doesn’t exist,” he said.

A friend, fellow veteran and VFW member Jay Wilkoff heard about the situation and started working to correct the mistake. That was about four years ago.

Goolsby said finally getting the medal was “a relief.”

Asked how he would advise other veterans in the same situation, he said, “Just keep slugging it out. Keep doing it, and if you live long enough, you can out-last the slowness of the bureaucracy. But it’s worth it.”

Westmoreland said he is honored when he gets to bestow honors on veterans and thanked everyone in the VFW hall for their service to the country.

 “This is a great honor for Bobby today and it’s a great honor for me,” Westmoreland said.

On the fateful day in 1971, Capt. Goolsby was with the 192 Assault Helicopter Co., flying out of Ban Me Thout as one of two gunship escorts for a pair of utility helicopters assigned to pick up some South Vietnamese rangers and an American officer acting as an advisor with them. The helicopters came under fire as they approached and Goolsby’s craft went down.

Two of Goolsby’s crew didn’t survive the crash. Spec. 5 Johnny Arthur, crew chief, and Spec. 4 Louie “Gooch” Montoya, door gunner, were killed. Goolsby’s right-seat pilot, Warrant Officer Steve Watson, survived, but has since died.

Goolsby likely wouldn’t have survived the incident if not for the heroics of Spec. 5 Leonard Shepard, the crew chief on the other gunship escort. His helicopter hovered low over the three-layer canopy of the jungle below, and Shepard leapt out into the trees. In a combination of falling and climbing, Shepard broke an arm in two places on the way down, but carried on, pulling the injured soldiers from the burning wreckage and holding off the enemy until they could all be rescued.

After the VFW ceremony today, one of Goolsby’s grandsons,  Gabe Goolsby, who calls him “Big Dude,” said he is very proud of his grandfather.

“It’s awesome,” the 13-year-old said. “I was kind of mad because he didn’t have and he deserved it.”

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