Never captured, Vietnam medevac pilot from Harrisburg is a POW nonetheless
John M. Travers remains a prisoner of war.
Yet, the Vietnam helicopter pilot hero from Harrisburg was never taken captive.
In fact, those who flew countless medevac missions with Travers into the hottest, most hellish spots of the Vietnamese jungle to rescue scores of America's wounded say there was always a strange aura of protection surrounding the pilot.Army pilot John Travers (left) and Navy medic Ray Thorn stand in front of Vitnam era Bell Huey helicopters in the hangar at Fort Indiantown Gap. Friday, Feb. 6, 2004.
Everyone around Travers sensed he'd survive it all. So they gravitated to him because they wanted to live, too.
"He was just fearless. They knew if they rode with him, they would come back," said Calvin L. Ligh, a California fi lmmaker who spent the past three years researching and producing a documentary on Travers.
Even with the helicopter packed to the liftoff weight-limit with wounded and lit up by enemy ground fire, the rounds piercing the chopper's metal skin and pinging through the cockpit and cabin, Travers proved invulnerable.
Once, a round pierced his metal helmet. But something - mere physics or a higher power - caused the bullet to ring its way around Travers' head. He didn't sustain so much as a scratch.
All told, Travers and his three-member UH-1 "Huey" helicopter crew are credited with saving the lives of more than 2,000 American wounded during his 18-month tour in 1969-70.
They were known as a "Dustoff" crew. It stands for "Dedicated Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Forces."
Travers lived up to every word.
When he returned to the U.S. only to find his fellow Vietnam vets dreadfully disrespected by the American public and even by fellow veterans of prior wars, Travers helped found the Vietnam Veterans of America.
This, so he and his brethren would have a place - and source of support - all their own.
Travers also helped lead the charge for a combat badge honoring crews of medical rescue helicopters - not for himself but for his brothers.
Travers never wavered from his Dustoff commitment to provide unhesitating service, and not just during combat but throughout his life.
He never once ceased trying to serve and protect his fellow Vietnam soldiers.
If only he could have saved himself.
John M. Travers grew up surrounded by excellence.
His much-admired father, John A. Travers, was the long-time sports editor of The Patriot-News. Young John was raised on all manner of sports contests, sharing a choice seat in the press box with his dad.
Their family home was always open to top coaches and for mer players. The talk always turned to great plays, the disciplined, dedicated athletes that made them, and ingenious game-planning that envisioned them.
The keen eye of John's sports editor father always searched for excellence. As his son, John knew he could deliver nothing less.Bishop McDevitt's starting line up for the 1965-66 season. Bottom row: Fred Parise (left) and Tony Kinn. Top row, from left: Lew Billet, Don Polly and John Travers. They played the PCIAA championship game.
A naturally gifted athlete with a devil-may-care persona, John could have played any sport. His dad advised him to focus on one.
It was basketball. And John helped his beloved Bishop McDevitt team bring home the state championship in 1966.
It was his senior year. And there was a prom to attend.
Somehow, the basketball star would take the girl from the school chorus.
Kathleen Torchia says she believed she'd be the last girl John would have asked. But there were sparks even back then.
Still, awkward teens being what they were in the mid-1960s at a buttoned-up Catholic school, John and Kathleen barely talked during that prom date much less anything else.
After graduation, they went their separate ways.
Kathleen, the girl from chorus, would become an opera star in sunny California. John would ride a basketball scholarship to Penn State. But he ended up liking beer and college women far more than practicing and studying.
John washed out after his freshman year.
Knowing he'd have to face his father and his discerning, judgmental eyes, John came up with one last plan to prove himself.
The college drop-out would join the Army.
But only if he could become a pilot, just like his father, who flew B-1 bombers in the Big One -- World War II.
It mattered little to John that a world away a war was on and growing more intense and bloody. Before that conflict over communism began, few had even heard of the tiny country involved - Vietnam.
For John, these global events were a mere backdrop.
A son had something to prove to his father - and also to himself.
All of John's athletic prowess - his precision reflexes, the keen hand-eye-coordination, the finely tuned muscle control - would come into play in Army flight school.
John aced everything.
As good as he was as in flight school, John proved an even better pilot.
Unleashed on an actual mission against a real enemy, John thrived on the challenge, relished the action and never once shrunk from the ever-present danger.CW5 John M. Travers, 70, was a Huey helicopter pilot in Vietnam and is now battling Agent Or ange induced illnesses. Kathleen Travers, his wife, and filmmaker Calvin Ligh talk about Travers and the film they made about his service and health battles since Vietnam.
As his tour began in 1969, there was no bigger challenge, no hotter
, more hellish action, no deadlier danger than in Vietnam.
U.S. deaths in the war peaked in 1968 with 16,592. The following year was a close second, with 11,616.
In Nam, about 30 percent of the American wounded died of their injures.
It was the other 70 percent that Travers and his Dustoff crew set out to save.
Over the 18 months of his tour, Travers would fly his air ambulance helicopter nearly nonstop into the deepest reaches of the Vietnamese jungle to fulfill that Dustoff pledge of "dedicated unhesitating service" to his fellow soldiers.
Travers and his dozens of fellow Dustoff pilots literally perfected the lifesaving military tactic of helicopter medical rescues as the war unfolded i n Vietnam. It was the ultimate unification of man, machine and mission, giving birth to a new type of war hero.
"They flew eight hours a day, every day," filmmaker Ligh said. "That was what they did, day in and day out. Come hell or high water, they will get the wounded and come back."
There were close calls.
John was shot down twice, Ligh said, who interviewed some of Travers' crew members and even some of the wounded he rescued.
And of course, there was that bullet-riddled liftoff when Travers took one in the helmet, yet didn't so much as muss his hair.
"He had to dodge the bullets coming through the bottom of the [copter]," Ligh said, adding, "He still has that helmet."
To make it in and out of the hot zones, Travers specialized in what Ligh called "nap-of-the-earth" flying.
It makes for a seat-of-the-pants ride right over the tops of trees and the tips of mountains in bot h broad daylight and the dark of night. And all this was before those nifty night-vision goggles.
"These pilots are taking these helicopters 50-60 feet of the ground, going 60 miles per hour," Ligh described.
The enemy's biggest advantage was their home turf, all of it covered and camouflaged by dense rain-forest jungle.
To answer this decided edge, the U.S. military, aided by corporate contractors Dow Chemical and Monsanto, came up with the caustic, cancer-causing defoliant dubbed Agent Orange.
It worked like a charm.
"They'd spray it and in four hours things were dying," Ligh said recently of the secret-weapon weed-killer. "Not just weeds and plants -- but trees. It was in everything."
Including, as it would turn out, the systems of many of the soldiers who flew and fought in those chemical-denuded jungles.
Those cancer-causing agents would remain dormant inside U.S. soldiers for decades -- a ticking time bomb sewn in a long-ago war that would detonate with a vengeance.
A Lost Love, Found
Nearly 35 years later, the Bishop McDevitt chorus girl returned to Harrisburg, a California opera star.
At the time, Kathleen Torchia's hometown friends were planning a class reunion. So Kathleen accompanied them to a meeting.CW5 John M. Travers, 70, was a Huey helicopter pilot in Vietnam and is now battling Agent Orange induced illnesses. Kathleen Travers, his wife, and filmmaker Calvin Ligh talk about Travers and the film they made about his service and health battles since Vietnam.
There, among once fresh-faced friends turned old was her high school heartthrob.
The passage of time had changed John Travers.
In that early 2000s encounter, Kathleen saw a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, John-Wayne-walking hero helicopter instructor at Fort Indiantown Gap.
John was every bit the aging action hero.
His Fort Indiantown Gap flight students admired him. His fellow veterans flocked to him. And even those who knew nothing of his many military exploits instantly recognized the coiled strength and fully-justified confidence in his ever-present swagger.
But Kathleen saw the shattered image of her school-girl crush.
Before her now was an aging ex-athlete desperately clinging to his glory days, with big, bushy eyebrows, a cheesy mustache, a bad comb-over and two habits she simply hated - drinking and smoking.
It was definitely not love at first sight, take two.
Kathleen remained in Harrisburg to be with her aging father, and John kept calling. Soon, the two were talking for hours a day, usually by phone.
As the weeks went by, Kathleen liked more and more of what she heard. So much so, she called John on it, demanding at one point: "Are you ju st saying things to make me think you are amazing?"
John pleaded innocence.
Soon Kathleen agreed to John's near-constant requests for an official date. Her one condition was that John give up his drinking and smoking.
He tried his best, but Kathleen eventually gave him a pass. They agreed John could keep his vices, so long as he kept them from Kathleen.
For all their conversations to follow, John never discussed the war. Kathleen would learn the details of John's heroism through others.
"He really wouldn't talk about it," she said. "But other people, his friends, they would tell me stories. I couldn't believe it."
Other times, no words were necessary to recognize the high regard with which John Travers was held by his fellow friends and brothers in arms.
"I saw how people were around him," Kathleen said. "They just idolized him. He was like an icon."
This made Kat hleen respect her humble hero even more.
She fell in love. So did John.
The high school prom couple with multiple failed marriages between them tied the knot in September 2005.
It seemed a storybook ending. Only, their honeymoon would be cruelly cut short.
During one of the happiest times of their entire lives, the Vietnam War reached from the past and claimed a new prisoner.
Six months after they were married, John came down with painful bumps on his body.
At first, he didn't want to let on that anything was wrong. His biggest fear wasn't for his health. It was losing his flight status at Fort Indiantown Gap.
But when Kathleen saw him shirtless, she knew right away something was very, very wrong.
The eventual diagnosis was T-cell lymphoma. And while the cancer was arrested by aggressive treatments, a secondary condition to the disease would rage un-diagnosed until it was too late.< p>It first surfaced when John was giving a speech.
He slurred his words throughout the oration. People thought he was drinking.
He wasn't.CW5 John M. Travers, 70, was a Huey helicopter pilot in Vietnam and is now battling Agent Orange induced illnesses. Kathleen Travers, his wife, and filmmaker Calvin Ligh talk about Travers and the film they made about his service and health battles since Vietnam.
Next, the precision pilot was suddenly having trouble rounding curves in his car. When driving, John took even the most basic turn exaggeratedly wide.
Kathleen just looked at him.
Then he was having trouble walking. And he seemed to choke on his food every time he tried to eat.
Multiple doctors and rounds and rounds of tests turned up nothing, even as John got worse and worse.
In just six months, he was a differen t, diminished man.
The aging action-hero helicopter pilot with his I'll-survive-anything swagger was rigid and nearly bed-ridden most of the time. This, despite being a still-virile 58.
The diagnosis would come about two years' too late: paraneoplastic cerebellar degeneration.
Triggered by the lymphoma, this autoimmune condition causes the body to destroy a person's cerebellum at a cellular level, causing irreversible neurological damage that robs one of all motor control.
John was now a prisoner of his own body. Vietnam had finally taken him prisoner, at last.
"What happened to him was so rare, the research only goes back to 2008. This was 2006," the then-newly-wedded Kathleen Torchia Travers said. "The doctors didn't know what was happening to him at the time."
Since then, both conditions have been conclusively linked to Agent Orange. John's heavy drinking, also a byproduct of the war t o cope with its emotional effects, likely accelerated the onset and severity of his disease, Kathleen said.
In the years since, a wife has watched a husband waste away.
"Watching him go through this process of declining is the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life," Kathleen said. "I watched a vital person - such a great athlete, he could still do anything - it was hard to watch him lose everything."
Along the way, many people - from dear friends to dispassionate doctors - have advised her to move on with her life.
"I can't tell you how many people told me to walk away," Kathleen said. "I said, 'Excuse me. I said vows.' Yeah, no. I'm not walking away. Plus, I really wanted to help John. We had such a beautiful marriage. Finally, we had found the right person. We were both so happy. It makes me very mad."
Kathleen has fought for John's care, which requires a round-the-clock nursing facility. She moved him out of a VA nursing home and now has him placed in a small care facility in California run by a former military doctor. The average age of the patient there is the upper 80s. John is just 70.
Even John has begged Kathleen to forget him.
An uncomfortable accompaniment of John's physical decline had been the return with a vengeance of his combat-caused PTSD. There were times when all John did was rage. There he was, all but immobile in some nursing home bed, screaming loudly and endlessly about this cruel twist of fate tied to Vietnam and Agent Orange.
Sometimes he howled and screamed until he had no voice left.
"I'd go visit him, and he would tell me, 'go away, go away.' I would say, John, you're making me feel bad," Kathleen said.
Many times, she has burst from his room sobbing.
"I have this husband, and I don't have this husband," she said. "When somethi ng like this happens, your whole world falls apart. When this first happened, I didn't know what to do with myself. I have shed many, many tears. Having to be strong hasn't been easy. I scream to God. I have really been through the mill. We both have. The anger was overwhelming at first. Now I've learned to ... it has subsided somewhat."
To feel closer to her husband, Kathleen began writing a book about him. Then, after discussing it with close family friend and filmmaker, Calvin Ligh, the project became a documentary film.
The pair will never forget the day they told John about the movie.
"I said, 'John, we're going to make a film about you'," Kathleen recalled. "His eyes just lit up, and he started smiling. That's when he started talking to us."
Nearly three years and more than $100,000 later, the self-financed feature film is finished.
It's call ed, "All were forgotten... And then came John."A poster for the movie about John M. Travers, Harrisburg, Pa., native, son of former Patriot-News sports editor John Travers, Vietnam Huey medevac pilot and Bishop McDevitt sports star in the 1960s.
It chronicles Travers' mission as a Dustoff pilot, then tracks his life-long service to fellow Vietnam Veterans.
These days, however, Travers is the one at risk of being forgotten.
Kathleen vowed that she, Ligh and the film are determined not to let that happen - both for John and all Vietnam veterans.
"When you are married to a military man, your loyalty is very, very strong," Kathleen said. "You will do anything for that man. I wanted other veterans who were struggling to know where they could go for help and what their families are going through."
All the while, that long-ago war remains relentless about claiming causalities and new prisoners decades after the fact.
"Now the Vietnam veterans are dying, which is unbelievable," Kathleen said. "They can't fight for themselves anymore."
But she and others can. This is the message of the film, which is being screened for Vietnam veterans groups in Harrisburg and California, where Kathleen and John now live full-time.
As Kathleen and Ligh put it, the weary Dustoff crews have done their all. Making sure no one is forgotten is up to us, now.
"These people are our heroes," Kathleen insisted. "They are our royalty in this country - not the government. They keep us free. They enable us to live our lives the way we live them. They fought and died for us. Now it's our turn to fight for them."
Click on this link to see the trailer for the documentary and additional interviews.
Poignantly, the film ends with John's disease-diminished face filling the frame. Vietnam has exacted its toll. But the solider who saved so many thanks the ones who saved him.
Most especially, the high school chorus girl he took to the Bishop McDevitt prom a lifetime ago.
"We have John saying at the end of the film, 'I feel better. I feel good. I feel alive,'" Ligh said, adding: "He was essentially written off by the medical profession. To have him on camera essentially saying that he feels alive now speaks volumes for what Kathleen has done by forcing the care to happen - and for what others can do for their veterans."
Alas, wars are never really over, are they?
Editor's note: If you are a Pa. veteran or know of one who has a story to tell, contact Paul Vigna at 717-255-8404 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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