- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) - It is 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Jim Nowicki and Chris Oelerich have retreated to the cool darkness of the bar at The Princess as the shock troops of another Mississippi summer make their first advances. The two men, both retired now, are unwinding after a two-week, 3,000-mile car trip through about half the states to see seven of their old buddies.

At this hour, The Princess is largely empty, just two guys sitting around talking before Oelerich leaves the next morning for his home in Colorado.

They should not be here.

In fact, they should not be anywhere, when you consider the odds.

But here they are, these two odds-beaters, making plans for next summer, when all nine surviving members of B Troop 7, 17th Air Cavalry from the Vietnam War will meet for a reunion in Washington, D.C.

If their luck holds out, of course.

So far, so good.

Of the nine survivors of their unit, Nowicki and Oelerich are especially close.

“We were roommates in flight school,” said Nowicki, 71. “We went to Vietnam together, were assigned to the 17th Air Calvary and we both volunteered to fly scouts and we wound up in the same unit.”

Six months after arriving in Vietnam, their paths would part.

It would be more than 40 years before they saw each other again.

Flying a scout helicopter was generally considered to be little short of a death warrant.

“You’re flying a small helicopter, OH-6s at tree-top level, looking for the bad guys,” Nowicki said.

As often as not, the bad guys found them first. The OH-6 was relatively tiny, weighing about 2,000 pounds, about two-thirds of what the average automobile weighs today. Flying such a small craft at such a low altitude made the pilots vulnerable even to small-arms fire.

It was a pretty bad year to be in Southeast Asia, too. In 1969 alone, 11,616 servicemen died there, the second-bloodiest year of the war.

“The survival rate for a scout pilot was 19 percent,” Nowicki said. “You didn’t really expect to survive, if you were honest with yourself.”

Nowicki was just 24 years old when he arrived in his base in the central highlands of Vietnam. Oelerich was just 20.

“I was just a kid,” says Oelerich, now 67. “I watched friends get killed, wounded, captured. How do you process that kind of stuff when you’re just a kid? I’d come in from flying a scout mission, sit on my bunk and drink until I fell over. Then I’d get up the next morning and do it all over again. That’s how I coped, if you could call it that.”

Oelerich spent a calendar year in Vietnam, grabbing the chance for an early opt-out as the war begin to draw down.

Nowicki flew scout missions for six months, but he didn’t get home until much later - March of 1973.

What happened to him in those intervening 41 months played a powerful role in bringing the scout pilots back together more than 40 years later.

In November of 1969, Nowicki was on a scouting mission, joined by another scout and a gunship helicopter.

“We came across a bunker complex and were checking it out when we started getting some small-arms fire,” Nowicki recalls. “As we headed back to base camp, I could see the other scout’s helicopter was shot up pretty bad and leaking. I got him on the radio and told him to sit down and I’d pick him up.”

With both scout helicopters on the ground and the gunship hovering above, a wave of fire opened up, downing the gunship and destroying both of the scout helicopters on the ground.

“We lost three helicopters and had six men on the ground,” Nowicki said.

For three days, Nowicki eluded the enemy before being captured, becoming one of the almost 2,500 U.S. servicemen to become prisoners of war or missing in action.

After six months in a prison camp in Cambodia, Nowicki and five other prisoners were marched up the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Hanoi.

“When I was captured, I weighed 165 pounds,” he says. “When I got to Hanoi, I weighed 119.”

For 39 months, Nowicki’s main job was survival. He offers few details.

“You take it a day at a time and try to get through that day,” he said. “It was tough, but it beat the alternative.”

Back at base camp, when Oelerich learned that Nowicki’s helicopter had been shot down, his instincts kicked in.

“We wanted to go get him,” Oelerich says. “We didn’t even give it a thought. It was, ‘OK, let’s go.’ But we were ordered to stand down. I didn’t see Jim again for more than 40 years.”

About the time Nowicki was making his way up the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Oelerich was arriving back home in Chicago.

His war was over. His suffering was not.

“I was just a mess,” he says. “I spent the next three years basically trying to destroy myself. The only way I could sleep was to drink until I fell over. I was very, very violent when I drank, too.”

Years later, Oelerich wrote and self-published a book about his struggle: “Merry Christmas and a Happy PTSD.” In it, he shared one incident about the effect of his alcoholism and PTSD.

I was home, sitting at my parents’ kitchen late one night, slowly nursing an Imperial quarter of Seagram’s V.O., when my dad walked in and told me it was 2 in the morning and I should think about getting some sleep. I told him I needed to stay right where I was. “If I get up from this chair, I am going to start killing people and I don’t believe I’ll be able to stop. So, please, let me sit here and I’ll work this out.”…My dad just said, “OK,” and left. I heard all the doors on the second floor being locked. My dad never brought it up again. He had been in World War II. He understood.”

After three years, Oelerich finally decided he had to do something. First, he got sober through Alcoholics Anonymous. Then he developed his own way to treat his PTSD, through a combination of prayer and meditation, following a regimented schedule and staying busy - Oelerich has owned several businesses and worked for large companies although he is now retired.

Aware of the success of his own strategies for coping with PTSD, Oelerich wrote his book on the subject

Soon after, his old platoon leader, R.J. Schissell, saw it on Amazon and contacted Oelerich. He bought copies and sent it, along with a letter, to the other seven surviving members.

“That’s when I was to get in touch with Chris again,” Nowicki said. “We had all lost track of each other.”

The former flight-school roommates soon made plans to visit each other. From those visits, they began planning their trip to see the other men from their unit - Schissell, Rick Hassman, Dick Cross, Peter Hobstetter, Stephen DaCosta, Greg Fuller and Doug Decker.

“Chris drove down from Colorado and we took my truck and went to see all the scout pilots in our platoon,” Nowicki said. “We went to North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Nebraska, then back home. It took almost two weeks.”

Oelerich said he wondered what he would find after so long a time apart.

“They’re doing OK,” he said. “Everybody has had some periods in their life when it was rough, but who doesn’t, right?”

He noticed something else, too, something that goes back to that November day in 1969 when the platoon learned Nowicki’s helicopter had been shot down.

“They were all happy to see us both,” Oelerich said. “But they NEEDED to see Jim, I think. I think it closed a pretty big circle.”

Oelerich is now 35 years into his second marriage, with two grown children.

Nowicki, the son of a World War II bomber pilot, moved to Columbus with his family at the age of 14 in 1959. He remained in the military after his return to the state, retiring in 1991. He spent 14 years at his second career with 4-County Electric Power before retiring for good in 2005.

Nowicki and his wife, Patsy, have been married 14 years and live in Columbus. Jim has two sons and a daughter from a previous marriage and three grandchildren.

As the men sat in the Princess, they weren’t looking back anymore, but ahead.

“Our platoon leader has some health issues and can’t travel anymore,” Nowicki said. “He lives in D.C., so right now, we’re working on having a reunion for all of us in D.C. about this time next year, if we can make it.”

You have to like their chances.

They’ve beaten far longer odds than that, after all.

___

Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com

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