Veterans Day Profile: Point Man, Roger Helle
“Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.” –John Adams
“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
“I’m Sgt. Helle’s brother. How is he?” asked Roger’s twin brother, Ron, also an E-5, USMC. “I’m sorry son, but your brother is going to die,” the physician responded tersely. That was July 1970, China Beach, Vietnam.
My friend Roger Helle was 17 years old when he joined the Marine Corps. The product of a broken home, he was very insecure and hoped becoming a Marine would provide him the confidence he lacked.
In February 1966, five months into his first 13-month tour in Vietnam, Roger’s unit was searching for Viet Cong around Gia Le. Roger had walked point for patrols during the previous four months and had been shot once, so his intuition about the enemy’s presence was acutely tuned.
On a night mission to a small fishing village reportedly occupied by VC, Roger and 12 other Marines were moving down a trail lined with dense bamboo. His squad leader had taken Roger’s position as point man, and Roger’s instinct told him the squad was moving too fast along the trail. So urgent was his sense that something was wrong that he wanted to call out, but did not want to betray their position.
In an instant, gunfire erupted and a series of “daisy-chain” explosions propelled Roger and two other Marines over the vegetation into an adjacent rice paddy. As he slowly recovered from the shock of the concussion generated by the explosions, he could see green tracers from VC weapons cutting up and down the trail.
The ambush was over as quickly as it began, and more than 60 VC emerged like ghosts from the bamboo, killed the wounded Marines on the trail, collected their weapons and disappeared.
As Roger regained his senses, he pulled the other two Marines in the water to the edge of the rice paddy. He then pawed around in the muddy water for his M-14, and crawled back onto the trail to check for survivors among the ten remaining Marines – among his friends. The squad leader had taken 29 rounds. There were no survivors.
Roger recovered a radio under one of the dead, crawled back to the water’s edge with the wounded Marines, and called base camp with their coordinates. Within a half hour, Chinooks arrived with quick reaction squads to recover the injured and dead.
The two Marines Roger pulled from the water were evacuated to Da Nang, but died en route.
Roger was the sole survivor of that horrific ambush. There was no consolation for the “survivor’s guilt” he experienced – not the anger, not the nightmares – not for years.
In July 1970, two tours, two Purple Hearts and numerous other decorations later, Roger Helle, now a sergeant and platoon leader for a “killer team,” was walking point on a mission back to a village to destroy earthen tunnels used by the VC for escape and evasion.
Normally, a platoon leader would not take the point position in front of his men; if he was wounded or killed, it could threaten the continuity and survivability of the whole platoon. However, suffering four years of guilt after relinquishing his position on point and losing his entire squad, Roger was not about to ask one of his guys to walk point for what he considered a “mop-up” mission.
Their packs overloaded with C-4 explosives to destroy the VC tunnels, Roger’s platoon took frequent breaks. After one stop, he crossed a field about 50 yards ahead of his platoon to check for booby traps. While scanning the area, he sensed a glint of something in his peripheral vision, coming through the air. A grenade bounced off his leg – and a second later, exploded under his feet, violently impelling him backward and then to the ground.
Roger recounts that the detonation “felt like thousands of volts of electricity surging through my body.” After hitting the ground, he says, “My body would not respond to what my mind wanted it to do.”
Amazingly, he managed to stagger to his feet and wipe enough blood from his eyes to see an enemy soldier, about ten yards in front of him, point his weapon and fire. As the rifle recoiled, two rounds hit Roger, spinning him around and knocking him face down to the ground. As he rolled back toward the light of the sky, he could make out the silhouette of that NVA soldier standing above him. Their eyes met as the enemy thrust his bayonet into Roger’s abdomen.
Just a few seconds, but an eternity had elapsed.
Roger’s platoon had instinctively hit the ground after the grenade detonated, but six of his men rose up in time to see the NVA soldier over their platoon leader. They fired on the enemy as he withdrew his bayonet, and he dropped a few feet from Roger.
Roger was riddled with shrapnel from the grenade, hit with two rifle rounds and bayoneted. Worse yet, the shrapnel had detonated one of the phosphorus grenades in his demolition bag. His clothing and body were on fire. He managed to get out of his burning flack jacket, but the pain racked his body.
At that moment, Roger says, “I was tired of the killing, tired of losing friends, tired of trying to make sense of the war and my life. I just wanted to die and have all this suffering be over.”
Roger was evacuated to the 95th EVAC Hospital, China Beach, where he underwent numerous surgeries. After six days at death’s door, he regained consciousness long enough to recognize a familiar voice on the ward – that of his brother Ron, asking a physician if Roger was there.
After telling Ron that his brother was going to die, a nurse led him to Roger’s bedside. Ron stood over Roger for a minute, trying to recognize what was left of his brother, and then started to sob, falling to the end of Roger’s bed in grief.
“Your brother is going to die.” The finality of those words were sinking in, as Ron wept, compelling Roger to pray, “God, if there really is a God … if you let me live, I’ll do anything you want.” With that, he fell unconscious again.
In the days that followed, Ron (who also had three Purple Hearts and later received the Navy Cross for jumping on a grenade to protect other Marines) never left the side of his brother. Roger saw many injured men brought into that ward and could only watch as life drained from their bodies. Miraculously, Roger’s condition improved. The road to recovery was long and hard, but 31 operations later, including four to reconstruct his face, recover he did.
Along the way, Roger met his Savior and fulfilled his promise to God – and he has served in full-time ministry since 1978. Indeed, in a war with no victors and replete with death, Roger found victory over death through Christ. He also met and married his wife and ministry partner, Shirley, and they now have two children and five grandchildren.
At this writing, some 37 years later, Roger appears as robust as a linebacker. He leads a challenging but successful ministry of discipleship to young people in the grip of life-controlling addictions. “Life is a gift from God,” says Roger. “What we do with it can be our gift to God.”
Roger’s ministry to others also includes 19 trips back to Vietnam since 1989, where he and “Vets with a Mission” have helped to build orphanages, clinics and hospitals for rural peasants ignored by their Communist government and they have supplied them with millions of dollars of donated medical supplies.
This Christian Soldier understands well the counsel of Ecclesiastes 3:1-3, which says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal.” His third book, “A time to kill and a time to heal,” takes its inspiration from that passage, as does Roger.
Regarding Vietnam and the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Roger is characteristically candid: “I have never regretted a minute of my service in Vietnam. That’s because I did not see the war the way the media portrayed it. I saw it through the eyes of the people that I lived with, the people of Vietnam who wanted to live free in peace.
He continues, "As The Patriot Post noted years ago in its analysis of the media’s Vietnam war coverage, Hanoi and the Soviets were very pleased with the disunity created by John Kerry, Jane Fonda and their ilk.”
Roger adds, “Vietnam will not be a failure if we learn the lessons of that conflict. Politicians cannot run the war – the generals must lead and lead well. The majority of people in Iraq and Afghanistan want peace and freedom, but the media’s portrayal of that critical conflict is just as prejudiced as it was during Vietnam – maybe more so. The Left, with the media’s help, may force the same scenario in Iraq that they forced in Vietnam, with the same consequences for the entire region. The vast majority of our Armed Forces in the region both understand and support our mission.”
To Roger, and to all fellow Patriots who have served our nation with courage and great sacrifice, we offer our heartfelt gratitude. You have honored your oath “to Support and Defend…So Help Me God” as do those on the front lines in the war with Jihadistan today – Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. You have kept the flame of Liberty, lit by our Founders at the dawn of our nation, burning bright for future generations.
(Update: In 2018, Roger Helle was appointed Executive Director of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the first Medals of Honor were awarded for heroic actions in 1862.)
In 1918, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month marked the cessation of World War I hostilities. This date is now designated in honor of our veterans, and a focal point for national observance is the placing of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
Today, nearly 24 million (eight percent) of our countrymen are veterans. Of those, 33 percent served in Vietnam, 18 percent in the Gulf War, 14 percent in WWII and 13 percent in Korea. About three percent served in Iraq and Afghanistan and other counter-terrorism theaters. More than 25 percent of those veterans suffer some disability.
Please pause with us at 1100 EST this Sunday to pray for all our veterans.