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Diversity Day Honors Military Veterans
04.26.13
 
As Del. Gordon Helsel (R-Va.) clung to consciousness on a hillside in Vietnam, the blood from a gunshot wound to his left arm seeping into the dirt, he nearly gave up.

Ten months into a tour of duty that started in 1967, Helsel was on what was supposed to be a routine search-and-destroy mission. That mission turned into what he now calls "the worst event" of his life.

Del. Gordon Helsel

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Del. Gordon Helsel (R-Va.) talked about his time serving in Vietnam at Diversity Day 2013. Credit: NASA/Dave Bowman

Sen. Mamie Locke

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Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Va.) talked about women in politics at Diversity Day 2013. Credit: NASA/Dave Bowman

Holocaust Display

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Karen Freidt, left, looks over a display from the Holocaust Commission of Tidewater. Earlier in the program commission members Ronnie Yancey, center, and Jan Johnson, right, gave a video presentation about a Holocaust survivor. Credit: NASA/Dave Bowman

Helsel shared his war story April 24 as part of Diversity Day 2013 at NASA's Langley Research Center. The theme of this year's event was "Patriotism: Honoring Our Veterans."

Helsel does not mince words when recalling the dire circumstances he faced that day in Vietnam. "I had decided that I would bleed to death right there on that mountain," he said.

Separated from his company, two of his fellow GIs shot dead right next to him, Helsel was already in a bad situation. Then things went from bad to worse. A bullet pierced his left side.

"To be honest with you," he said, "other than knocking me down, it didn't really hurt."

He got up and ran. After about five yards, another bullet hit him, knocking him back down and taking out "a sizable part" of his left arm. All he could do at that point was crawl, each beat of his heart causing fresh, hot blood to spill from the hole in his arm. He felt like he was going to pass out.

That's when events took what Helsel calls a "miraculous" turn.

The North Vietnamese started rolling hand grenades down an embankment in front of him. Unable to grab the grenades and throw them out of reach, Helsel waited for the inevitable explosions.

"They did explode. They did go off," he said. "And I never felt a thing. I never received a piece of shrapnel. My ears weren't damaged. It was like I was in a vacuum."

Still, he couldn’t imagine a way out. Too weak to go on, he rolled onto his side and waited for another bullet to tear through him, or maybe to have a bayonet stuck in his ribs.

Then he rolled back over. A field bandage was on the ground in front of him. "That bandage hadn't been there before," Helsel said.

He believes it was a case of divine intervention. After using the bandage to stanch the worst of the bleeding, he eventually mustered up the energy to reach his company's safety spot. He was later evacuated by helicopter. A surgical team saved his arm.

"I think we tend to lose sight of those folks that answer the call," Helsel told the audience at Diversity Day, reminding them that many veterans have stories similar to his.

"Let's don't forget the veterans," he said. "We owe them so much. We really do."

Earlier in the program, Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Va.) talked about diversity in politics — specifically in relation to gender.

Locke, who serves on Virginia's Joint Commission on Technology and Science, said she's one of very few women in Virginia politics. Only five of Virginia's 40 state senators are women. And fewer than 20 of the state's 100 delegates are women.

"It's still an area where our numbers are not commensurate with our population in the state," she said.

One of the main reasons for that, she said, is that women enter politics later than men do, mostly because they put an emphasis on family before career, resulting not just in fewer women in the Virginia Senate, but also fewer women who are senior members of the Senate.

It's for this reason that Locke and many of her colleagues were surprised following the 2008 elections, when several women took over senior roles.

"Out of the 11 standing committees in the Senate, seven of those committees were chaired by women," she said, "which was amazing."

It's something Locke would like to see more of.

"There's still a lot of inroads women need to make as it relates to electoral politics," she said.

Diversity Day also included a video presentation by the Holocaust Commission of Tidewater, a presentation of the colors by the Langley Air Force Base Honor Guard, performances by children from the NASA Langley Child Development Center and fourth graders from the Providence Classical School in Williamsburg, and display tables highlighting Women at NASA and the Tidewater Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen.

A slide presentation at the end of the program focused on some of NASA Langley's veterans.

"We honor our veterans because they're important to us," said William Hawkins, an equal employment specialist at NASA Langley and veteran of the United States Air Force. "I don't know if we can honor them enough."

By: Joe Atkinson

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman