Veteran comes full circle
By Dan Van Veen
On Nov. 19, 1969, some 200 U.S. soldiers of the 101st
Airborne were systematically being picked off by enemy fire in Vietnam. Pinned
down and taking heavy casualties, the group had radioed for help, but the
Vietnamese held the mountainous high ground while the U.S. forces were on the
plains below seeking any kind of cover they could find — and finding very
Although there had been attempts to take out a
heavy-artillery emplacement some 1,000 feet up the mountainside, the gun had
been mounted on a rail system inside the mountain. It would fire and then be
pulled back into the safety of a cave. Making matters worse, the gun wasn’t
visible from above for an accurate air strike as clouds hovered just above its
On that day, Maj. Bob Whelan and his F-4 Phantom II
fighter-bomber wingman were scrambled to do whatever they could to take out the
artillery position and save the 101st from being totally wiped out. But
according to Whelan, there was a problem.
“We were carrying dumb bombs [no guidance systems],” Whelan
recalls. “The way we deliver them is to go into a steep dive from 20,000 feet
— there was no way to do that!”
With the cloud cover, they could hardly make out the
mountains, much less the artillery pinning down the soldiers, so Whelan decided
to try something he had done as a test pilot back at Edwards Air Force Base
— he would come in at low altitude, pull up the mountainside and fly up
into the target to drop his bomb.
“It was unorthodox, unauthorized and outside of any normal
procedure,” Whelan says, but it was the only way he felt he could have a shot
at hitting the target. “My first pass missed, but the second time the 500-pound
bomb went into the cave — and it took everything out.”
For his heroic effort and skill in flying, Whelan would
receive the Distinguished Flying Cross. However, his bravery took a toll.
Although he knew his job as a pilot sometimes caused death and destruction,
this time there was a high body count — his bomb had taken many lives. He
would take the medal, return home, put the medal in a box and try to forget it
In 1985, Bob and Beverley Whelan and Todd, their then
15-year-old son, accepted Christ as Savior at Springs of Life, an Open Bible
church in Lancaster, Calif.
In 1989, Bob and Beverley became very involved in Lancaster
First Assembly. In 1993, a couple they respected mentioned they had attended an
AG Marriage Encounter and really enjoyed it.
“Anything that helps your marriage is a good thing,” Bob
recalls thinking. So, the next weekend, not knowing they needed to register,
they just showed up at a nearby Marriage Encounter. But things worked out, and
Bob and Beverley agreed: “It was awesome.”
That very next week, Mark Rhoades, director of AG Marriage
Encounter, contacted the Whelans. The weekend coordinators had felt the Whelans
would make excellent coordinators themselves, and after talking to the Whelans’
pastor, Rhoades agreed.
At the time, Bob thought they were joining a ministry that
helped marriages, but God also had something else He was preparing Bob for
— a healing.
It was May 1997. The Whelans were slated to do a Marriage
Encounter in Austin, Texas. At the last moment, things were switched, and the
Whelans ended up going to a Houston event instead. As Bob spoke, he decided to
share his story about his experience in being “unorthodox” in Vietnam in order
to achieve his objective. As he shared, Beverley noticed a man in the front row
staring intently at Bob.
Beverley recalls, “He kept inching forward on his seat as
Bob spoke. I wasn’t sure if Bob was making him angry or what the problem was.”
When Bob concluded his talk, the man got up and went
directly to Bob, dwarfing the slender Whelan. But then he began to quiz Bob on
his Vietnam story, asking for specific times, dates and locations. As Bob
responded, the man began to nod, tears welling up in his eyes. He explained to
Bob that he had been one of the men on the ground that day, trapped by the
enemy fire. They had never seen anything like what Bob had done to take out the
artillery, but he believed the only reason he was alive today was because of
Bob’s heroic act.
Prior to the Marriage Encounter, meal tables had been
preset. Benny Holmes (the Vietnam veteran) and his wife were “coincidentally”
chosen to sit with Bob and Beverley.
“It was an emotional meal,” Beverley says. “I’m crying,
Bob’s crying, Benny’s crying, his wife is crying — we’re all crying, and
I’m sure the rest of the couples were wondering what was going on.”
However, for Bob, after decades of hidden pain and struggle,
he opened himself up to Benny. Bob told him about the struggles he had of being
responsible for killing so many people … ultimately questioning himself as so
many had questioned and condemned him upon his return from Vietnam.
“He told me,” Bob says, “that if I hadn’t come and taken the
enemy out, every one of those U.S. soldiers would have been wiped out. By
killing the enemy, I had saved their lives.”
Beverley says she had been telling Bob basically the same
thing for years, but hearing it from Benny — a man who was there —
hit home. Bob says at that point the healing process finally began.
“Benny is a fine man, a deacon in his church, a father, a
caring husband,” Beverley says. “He just hugged Bob, and Bob about
At the end of the weekend, with his marriage refreshed,
Benny decided to let the rest of the Marriage Encounter couples in on the
emotional lunch of the day before. He stood before the couples and shared about
Bob’s act of heroism — and how this weekend, in God’s provision and timing,
he had finally met the man who had saved his life. By the time Benny concluded,
few dry eyes remained.
Today, good natured and with a smile always on his lips, Bob
no longer hides the pain he cemented inside for so long due to the experiences
of Vietnam. He expresses his compassion and prayers for the men who, like
Benny, were on the ground fighting in that horrific war. Bob still takes no
pride in the lives he took in the war, but his medals of heroism and
recognition from the military are now out of the cardboard box and in a display
box — symbolizing the lives saved.
DAN VAN VEEN is editor of AG News.
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