Last Vietnam veteran combat chopper pilot retires from S.C. National Guard

jmonk@thestate.comJanuary 5, 2014 

Command Chief Warrant Officer Eric Seymore, with wife Peggy, at Sunday's S.C. National Guard retirement ceremony.

COURTESY OF S.C. NATIONAL GUARD

More than 150 people turned out Sunday to bid a fond and formal goodbye to Command Chief Warrant Officer Eric Seymore, who, with 43 years in the military, is the last Vietnam War combat helicopter pilot in the S.C. National Guard.

Seymore was a legend both to his superiors, who depended on his multiple expertises, and to those who served under him, who regarded him as an inspiration and a mentor, said speakers at the ceremony at the Guard’s headquarters off Bluff Road.

Seymore, 61, was one of those “who would do extra of whatever was required of them,” the Guard’s No. 2 commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Les Eisner, said in a speech.

Sunday’s tributes to Seymore included an affectionate mix of homage to his wife of 40 years, Peggy, who endured numerous separations while he was on military duty, praise for Seymore’s work ethic and mentoring abilities, and jokes about Clemson (he graduated in 1976) and age (few serve into their 60s as Seymore did).

In 1970 — “43 years and seven months ago,” Seymore told the crowd — he enlisted in the Army, went to helicopter flight school and then on to Vietnam, where he flew 900 hours involving hundreds of missions in both Huey troop transport and medevac helicopters and Cobra helicopter gunships, the two Army air war workhorses in that era.

In his Vietnam missions, his helicopters made forced landings three times after being hit by enemy fire, he said in an interview. But, he said, in that war, such landings were no big deal — others endured far more, he said. “I didn’t crash in a ball of fire or anything like that,” he said.

Flying helicopters was one of his boyhood dreams, and over his career, he estimated, he flew some 5,300 hours in seven types of aircraft. Besides Vietnam, he also piloted Guard helicopters along the southwestern U.S. border, patrolling for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants.

As a gag joke, Seymore was given a wheelchair (dubbed in military parlance a “Ground Retiree Utility Mobile Platform” or GRUMP), with various advanced-age infirmity stereotypes — diapers, a flag to detect “hot air” when he talks too much and “do I have my shoes on” footlights.

More seriously, Seymore was also given three statuettes – of an American Revolutionary War Minuteman, a bald eagle and golden eagle.

“I appreciate the awards, but really, I didn’t earn them — these good people did,” Seymore said to the crowd, referring to those he served with over the years.

“One thing these men and women had in common — they had character and they had honor — and if you have to ask what those words mean, you don’t have it,” he said.

Seymore teared up for a few moments before praising his wife for putting up with his many military absences. “She does represent what the American soldier’s wives – spouses – are,” he said. “I appreciate that a lot more than I can tell you.”

Seymore’s military service involved a mix of part-time National Guard duty and full-time Army and National Guard duty.

In the past few years, he has been full-time chief command warrant officer at National Guard headquarters, meaning he was the top warrant officer among all 232 warrant officers in the state’s National Guard.

Warrant officers are a class of soldier between sergeants and officers such as lieutenants and higher ranks. A warrant officer is generally a career specialist in one field, such as being a helicopter pilot or a military intelligence officer.

Also present Sunday were the Seymores’ two National Guard sons – Capt. Eric Seymore and 1Lt. Andrew Seymore.

Seymore finished his speech by quoting lines in a Shakespeare play spoken by English King Henry V before the battle of Agincourt in1415.

“ ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he who sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother.’ That’s what we all are – brothers and sisters.”

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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