As thousands of Americans did, Darrell Jaggers and Dennis Sutton served in Vietnam and then tried to get back to life as best they could when they got home.
They never imaged a work meeting decades after their service would not only transport them back to the jungle, but forge a bond of friendship and healing.
Denny, a lawyer, and Darrell, a banker, met as work contacts in 1993. A simple question over lunch opened a door to the past.
“Denny asked what I like to do in my spare time,” Darrell recalled. “And I said I fly helicopters for the Army National Guard. He asked if I flew in Vietnam and I said I did. He said he served in Vietnam too.”
Darrell joined the Army in 1967.
“I knew my draft numbers would be mailed to me and I decided to join because I learned I could enlist in flight school and learn to fly helicopters,” Darrell said.
He Piloted the Chinooks, CH-47s, transporting soldiers or supplies: food, weapons, ammunition.
“We did everything. We carried in live people. We carried out bodies. We did what we had to to support the guys on the ground. We didn’t start it. We just went there and tried to do our duties. I learned early on we weren’t there to win the war. I lost 34 friends there,” Darrell said.
Denny was one of the guys on the ground.
“We were grunts. We humped the bush. We were in the mountains. We were in the jungle. This is 1970. The idea was to seek the enemy and destroy. We rarely found them. The only time we made contact was when Charly wanted to make contact frankly,” Denny recounted.
Denny had been drafted.
“It was the first day of law school at IU Bloomington and my mom called and said, ‘Son, you’re in the Army,'” Denny said.
To soldiers like Denny, The Chinooks Darrell flew weren’t just helicopters, they were hope.
“That thump, thump, thump was what all grunts looked forward to. It might be bringing supplies or a medi vac, but normally it was something good. It was a welcome thump, thump, thump. They were life savers for us,” Denny recalled as his eyes grew damp from the memories.
May 1970. Denny’s unit, the 4th infantry division, had the chance to help a helicopter crew.
As Denny told Darrell the story, over lunch in Fort Wayne in 1993, Darrell’s ears perked up.
“I knew that’s where I flew as well,” Darrell said.
“We found the Chinook that was badly damaged and we secured it. We were there for a few days I’m sure,” Denny said, continuing his story.
But, Darrell interjected.
“I said, ‘Yeah, it was 35 miles southeast of Pleiku, in the jungle and the helicopter was destroyed and no body was killed.’ He said, ‘How’d you know that?’ and I said, ‘It was our Chinook,'” Denny finished
Decades later, in casual conversation, Denny and Darrell learned their service didn’t just take them both to the other side of the world, it was the exact same spot.
“I found it amazing that we were connected from an incident 11,000 miles away in early May 1970 and how we could both have an impact from that and both remember that so well,” Darrell said. “The pilot was a good friend of mine and I had ridden on that helicopter two weeks before.”
The encounter created an instant connection.
“A warrant officer Darrell Jaggers and a grunt like me, a buck private at the time, had a commonality we were in the same spot in Vietnam. For him to be able to relate to me being at that site and knowing how the Chinook looked and him saying he knew it, that was really really incredible,” Denny said.
Even though their paths crossed, the two don’t recall meeting in Vietnam.
“I did fly more missions after that and he might have ridden in my helicopter so meeting someone there at the same time made me feel great,” Darrell said.
What started as a business relationship, became a friendship that helped heal old wounds.
“After you’ve served in combat together, even if we weren’t side by side, we were there at the same time, in same theater. It’s a brotherhood that means a lot to every one of us,” Darrell said.
Darrell lives in Indianapolis now, but the two are still close friends.
“There’s a commonality because of things you’ve been though. It was a pleasure to talk to another veteran and extra pleasurable because we had been through the same thing,” Denny said.