Abilene native John Deer grew up flying with his dad, a World War II Army Air Corps veteran. As a teenager on a car trip to Dallas, John passed by Fort Wolters near Mineral Wells, Texas, and took notice of the many helicopters populating the area’s big skies. How cool it would be to fly one of those, he thought.
In 1967, Deer enlisted in the Army so that he could apply for flight school, and it wasn’t long before he was at the stick of a UH-1 “Huey.” Like most helicopter pilots, he attended Primary Helicopter Training school at Fort Wolters, where, during the height of the Vietnam War, one of the world’s busiest airports was located.
In Vietnam, John was assigned to the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company, which was stationed in the woodsy area near Lai Khe, which the Americans called “Sherwood Forest.” In keeping with the name ascribed to its home base, Deer’s helicopter unit flew under the call sign “The Robin Hoods,” and painted the noses of their UH-1 aircraft with bright yellow caps.
Because of the rugged terrain, the lack of usable roads, and the need to move troops quickly to fluctuating battle sites, the U.S. military relied heavily on rotary aircraft in “The Helicopter War” in Vietnam. The Huey, built by Texas’ Bell Helicopter, was the most widely used, with more than 7,000 deployed. Deer flew “slick” missions, ferrying troops and supplies to battle zones. For the infantry on the ground, the Huey was a lifeline, and the signature whop-whop-whop of its single blade slapping the air is the soundtrack of their war. Dedicated to helping the men on the ground, Huey crews were known for their fearless commitment to a very dangerous duty.
Six months into his tour, just after he had turned 22, Deer was on a single-ship mission when his aircraft ran across an enemy bunker complex and was hit by 30 enemy rounds, one of which traveled through the Texan’s thigh and hip. The young soldier spent a year and a half in hospitals and rehabilitation. He wouldn’t fly again in Vietnam, but he would push himself to recovery, and come home to take to the air as a private helicopter pilot in San Antonio, where, among his other causes, he continues to do what he can to support medical and rehabilitative care for wounded warriors.