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'We had each other's backs': Tulsa-area Army pilots to reunite with comrades 50 years after daring rescue in Vietnam War

The voice on the other end of the phone didn’t sound at first like anyone Jack Weaver knew.

But the question that his mystery caller posed instantly triggered a memory.

“He asked me ‘Do you remember where you were on July 23, 1970?’ And I said I was in Vietnam,” said Weaver.

“And he said, ‘Yeah — you were in the front seat of my helicopter, and we were flying an emergency rescue.’ ”

As they recounted this phone conversation — which marked their first time to speak in nearly 40 years — Weaver and his old Army buddy Jim Mitchske laughed out loud recently.

The call — from Mitschke, who lives in Owasso — came a few years ago, and it caught his former copilot completely by surprise.

Weaver, who lived in Arkansas at the time, now resides in Tulsa, and the two get together often.

But for Mitschke and Weaver, just finding each other again was not enough.

This week, they will renew their ties to the other airmen who shared the experience that day, July 23, 1970.

A reunion marking the 50th anniversary of the rescue operation will take place virtually Thursday via Zoom.

“I had to do some tracking down to find everyone,” said Mitschke, one of the coordinators.

He and Weaver, who were awarded Silver Stars for their daring rescue of two downed airmen, will be joined by the four other pilots who were part of the mission, including the pair who were rescued.

Most of the men haven’t seen each other since Vietnam, Mitschke said.

“Part of it is about closure,” he said. “When I got home from Vietnam, I was glad to be home. But I had this empty feeling.

“I’d just left all my friends. It’s like leaving a football game in the third quarter — just quitting and walking off the field.”

Shot down

The mission that would thrust Mitschke and Weaver into the role of rescuers began at Camp Evans near Quang Le in South Vietnam.

As pilots of a Cobra attack helicopter, their usual job was supporting the troops on the ground.

“Whatever it took, get the job done for our friends on the ground. That was everybody’s mindset,” Mitschke said.

And that was how the July 23 mission started out: flying to the aid of a team in Laos. The team, part of secret operations there, had been out several days near the Ho Chi Minh Trail and was now in a tight spot. North Vietnamese patrols were hot on their tails with dogs.

Mitschke, a captain and platoon leader with his 101st Airborne rocket artillery battery, would pilot one Cobra chopper, with Weaver as copilot.

They would be joined by another Cobra along with an OV-10 observation plane.

Each of the three aircraft carried two men. In the other helicopter was Steve Wood, section lead for the mission, and his copilot, Ron Knapp.

The Cobras were well-equipped for this kind of action, armed with machine guns, aerial rockets and a grenade launcher.

When they arrived at the ground team’s location, they went to work, blasting away.

The effort worked to free up the team so it could continue its secret operation.

“Up to that point, the mission was a piece of cake,” Mitschke said. “Nothing unusual from any other.”

But in making one last pass before heading home, he glanced over at Wood’s helicopter. And what he saw alarmed him: “Flames were shooting from the engine all the way to the rear.”

The helicopter, he realized, had taken a direct hit from one of the enemy’s deadly .51-caliber heavy machine guns.

Unable to stay airborne, it was forced to set down in a nearby clearing.

As for what to do next, Mitschke didn’t have time to think about it.

With enemy troops converging, there was no time to wait for support: It was on him and Weaver to rescue their comrades.

And they would have to do it without any ammunition. They had expended it all.

“We were naked,” Mitschke said.

What followed were several intense minutes.

Directing the men by radio to make for a nearby ridgeline, Mitschke and Weaver attempted to meet them there.

The closer they got, the heavier the small arms fire grew. Their helicopter absorbed hit after hit.

Weaver, itching to do something, used the only weapon available. Opening the front canopy, he began firing at the enemy with his .38-caliber pistol.

It was a chaotic scene, Mitschke recalled.

“The noise of all the firing, the rounds hitting the aircraft and smells are hard to forget,” he said.

“Of course, you’re scared. You’re sweating bullets.”

The observation plane had circled back and was able to provide some cover fire, allowing Mitschke to move in close to Wood and Knapp.

Because the Cobra had space for only its pilot and copilot, the downed airmen had no choice: They had to ride on the outside of the aircraft.

This meant sitting on the ammo bay doors, a precarious perch that left their legs dangling in the air.

By now, enemy troops were closing in.

With Wood and Knapp now aboard and able to help return fire, Mitschke lifted off.

However, nothing, it seemed, was going to be simple. Mitschke recalls his chagrin at seeing his low fuel light suddenly flash on.

It meant, he figured, they had “about 20 minutes of fuel for a 30-minute flight back.”

But thanks to his piloting skills, he was able to adjust and manage. He got them home — on fumes, but in one piece.

‘Figured it was over’

Wood, who lives in Seattle, has thought about the events of July 23, 1970, often over the years.

“We all had many close calls, but this was the one where I figured it was over,” he said.

Wood can’t emphasize enough, he said, “how big a risk Jim and Jack took in picking us up. The location had many heavy anti-aircraft weapons and soldiers. It’s amazing Jim was able to get in and back out in one piece.”

Their Silver Stars were “well-earned,” he added.

Wood, who hadn’t spoken to Mitchske in almost 50 years, “was very surprised and elated” when he reached out to him.

Enthusiastic at the idea of a reunion, it was Wood who suggested using Zoom, with which he had prior experience.

“We are all getting old and will start losing old friends rapidly, so now is the time to do this,” he said.

Besides those involved in the July 23 rescue, the virtual reunion will include a few veterans involved in similar operations — rescues in which Cobra attack helicopters extracted downed airmen.

Mitschke said coming home from Vietnam, troops didn’t fully understand what they were leaving behind.

The lack of support stateside, where the war had become extremely unpopular, served only to highlight the bond they’d shared with their comrades.

They missed that bond, he said.

“We’d been together for two years, then when we got back, it was over. We went our own ways,” Mitschke said.

The desire for that old camaraderie is one reason Mitschke and Weaver regularly get together for breakfast with other Tulsa-area military helicopter pilots.

But this week’s virtual reunion will be special. It commemorates an experience they shared with only four other men.

Mitschke hopes it’s the start of something — a regular reunion, perhaps, that can eventually be done in person.

“In Vietnam, when you were thrown together in combat, you formed certain bonds. And you can’t duplicate it anyplace else,” Mitschke said.

“We had each other’s backs.”


Honest conversations with kids about COVID can help ease anxiety, medical professionals say

With in-person schooling likely on the horizon, it may be worthwhile for parents to have conversations with their children about COVID-19 and COVID-19 testing.

The procedure for COVID-19 testing is quite simple and quick.

A medical professional will have the patient tilt their head back and will insert a swab deep into the nasal cavity, swirling it around to collect a specimen for testing. Just a few seconds and a bit of discomfort.

COVID-19 may be on many parents’ minds as they look at the upcoming school calendar, and honest conversations from caregivers, parents or guardians may ease any anxiety a child may feel when looking at going back into public life, said Dr. Kimberly Martin, a University of Oklahoma pediatric infectious diseases physician and assistant professor.

“We should be telling them what’s going to happen rather than trying to sugar coat it for them,” she said.

Patients’ eyes may water, and they may feel like they need to sneeze. In fact, they may very well sneeze.

The conversation, she said, should be age-appropriate, and only the parent or guardian can know what that means for their child.

There may be anxiety leading up to the procedure. Or it may develop when a child arrives to be swabbed. Those who collect specimens are decked out in full personal protective equipment, and that can be disconcerting to a child.

Or they may go with the flow, Martin said.

“Parents know their child best,” she said. “They need to use the language they know their child knows.”

With COVID-19, there is a lot about which to talk.

Martin recommended regularly talking with children, particularly younger children, about good cough and sneeze etiquette, hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing.

Children are not at particularly high risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms or illness. Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief COVID officer at the University of Oklahoma, said Friday that children can and have gotten COVID-19.

“Kids don’t seem to get infected as often, and it may be that they don’t have as many of the receptors ... that the virus attaches to,” Bratzler said.

He was speaking of children younger than 14 or 15. Children who do become infected “tend to shed a lot of virus,” Bratzler said, referencing research from Chinese health officials.

As of Thursday, the infant to 4-year-old age group accounted for about 2.1% of the cumulative 23,441 COVID-19 cases, and the 5-17 age group accounted for about 7.6%, according to Oklahoma State Department of Health data.

Available information about COVID-19 in children is “somewhat limited,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, federal health officials advise that children who become infected with COVID-19 “generally had mild symptoms.”

“Despite lower risk of serious illness, children with COVID-19-like symptoms should avoid contact with older adults and people of any age who may be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19,” CDC officials state in the interim guidance for schools.

Martin said a family’s primary health care provider or family physician may be the best person to fold into the mix when talking with young family members about the virus and disease. She also recommended the CDC as a valuable resource for COVID-19 information.

Schools and parents should be prepared for short-term school closures if an infected person has been in a school building, according to the CDC.

Likewise, CDC officials also recommended continuity for education.

Several school districts in the metro area have approved hybrid or blended-learning plans for the 2020-21 school year in light of the ongoing pandemic.

Tulsa Public Schools implemented a hybrid plan that allows the district to transition between full-time distance learning and face-to-face instruction as needed. District administrators will rely on recommendations from local health officials to decide among three potential scheduling options: in-person learning, 100% distance learning or a combination of the two.

Union Public Schools will offer in-person instruction and online options. The plan includes a pathway for students to return to in-person instruction. School administrators at Jenks and Union indicated options were mapped out to adjust to the ongoing pandemic as needed.

COVID-19 testing is one component of a strategy to stymie the spread of the disease. Health officials said it should be used in conjunction with common guidelines, such as hand-washing, social distancing and mask-wearing.

COVID-19 is most commonly spread through respiratory droplets, so public health officials encourage people to wear a mask or cloth face covering and to stay at least 6 feet from people who don’t live with them.

Masks are vital when social distancing is difficult. A snug fit that covers the mouth and nose is the most effective, according to public health officials. A cloth face mask curtails the amount of respiratory droplets that escape from the wearer, preventing the unknowing spread of the virus.

Health experts have previously said wearing a mask can also help to serve as a reminder to be aware of social distancing guidelines.

In addition, people should avoid being in group or mass gatherings.

Frequent and thorough handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use of hand sanitizer also can help prevent the spread of the disease, health experts say.


COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know

COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues

Oklahoma AG tracking scores of appeals that could be affected by Supreme Court's tribal jurisdictional decision

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office has compiled a list of 178 individuals — including 44 in Tulsa County — who have filed challenges to their state court convictions based on claims that the state of Oklahoma didn’t have jurisdiction to prosecute them.

The jurisdictional claims are similar to those of Jimcy McGirt, 71, who won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision July 9 as part of an appeal he filed that asserted that much of eastern Oklahoma remains a part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s historical reservation, where the federal government, rather than the state, prosecutes major crimes involving American Indians.

McGirt successfully claimed that the federal government should have prosecuted him rather than Wagoner County District Court officials because Congress never disestablished the Creek reservation boundaries dating to 1866.

The Supreme Court decision earlier this month reversed an Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that denied McGirt post-conviction relief based on the jurisdictional claim.

In addition to the McGirt case, the Supreme Court reversed five other cases based on the Court’s 5-4 decision in McGirt’s case.

Since the ruling, fallout from the decision has come from several directions:

• Two criminal cases that ordinarily would have been filed in Tulsa County District Court are now being pursued exclusively in Tulsa federal court.

• Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter announced on Thursday that he and five tribes involved in the decision had reached a pact on jurisdictional issues related to the McGirt case, only to see the pact fall apart by Friday afternoon.

• Attorneys representing individual tribal members previously charged with crimes in state courts have filed suit, seeking class-action certification in a lawsuit lodged against those “unjustly enriched through their unlawful actions.”

The ruling has meant federal officials will now be called upon to prosecute future major crimes within the boundaries of the 11-county Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation, which includes most of Tulsa, when the victim or perpetrator is American Indian.

The Attorney General’s Office provided the Tulsa World the list of cases it was tracking based on jurisdictional claims in response to an Open Records Request.

The list includes:

• The case of former Tulsa Police Officer Shannon Kepler, who is serving a 15-year prison term for the 2014 shooting death of his daughter’s boyfriend, Jeremey Lake. Kepler has maintained that his Muscogee (Creek) Nation tribal citizenship, coupled with the fact that the shooting occurred in Indian Country, should have landed his case in federal rather than state court, where he was convicted on the state’s fourth try. (Three previous trials ended in mistrial.)

• Three death-penalty cases and 37 cases where the defendant received either a life sentence with the possibility of parole or a no-parole life sentence.

• The case of a man who claims he should have been tried in federal court despite the crime’s not having occurred in what is generally considered Indian Country for purposes of federal criminal jurisdiction.

The appeals generally cite the McGirt case along with a companion case won by Patrick Dwayne Murphy, who was sentenced to death after being convicted of a 1999 McIntosh County murder. Murphy also claimed that he should have been tried in federal court.

The list maintained by the Attorney General’s Office includes filings up to April 23 and covers cases both pending and disposed of by court rulings. The list of 178 cases does not include, for the most part, cases still in state district court because the Attorney General’s Office does not receive notice of those, said Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for Hunter’s office.

Gerszewski said the attorney general is working with U.S. attorneys, district attorneys and the courts in dealing with the claims.

“We are reviewing each on a case-by-case basis and will respond to the appeals according to any timeline established by the courts,” Gerszewski said.

In the Kepler appeal, the Attorney General’s Office has asked the Court of Criminal Appeals for an additional 60 days to review Kepler’s jurisdictional claims in light of the McGirt decision.

“The state submits that the 60-day deadline is necessary because this Office has dozens of cases that might be impacted by the decision in McGirt,” a court filing states.

The state made similar requests for additional time in other cases so attorneys can review the McGirt case.

Richard O’Carroll, Kepler’s trial attorney, said he thinks the former officer will win his appeal.

“I’m quite confident that the Court of Criminal Appeals does not have a choice in the matter — that it will be remanded to district court for dismissal,” O’Carroll said.

After the July 9 Supreme Court decision, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler issued a press release saying his office would work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Attorney General’s Office on ensuring “that eligible offenders are appropriately transferred to those jurisdictions for prosecution.”

Kunzweiler expressed concern for victims affected by the Supreme Court decision.

“They were the most impacted by this decision,” he said. “All they know is they were needlessly victimized.”

A spokeswoman for Kunzweiler said the District Attorney’s Office could not provide an exact number of McGirt-related cases that it was tracking other than to quote an assistant prosecutor who said they were looking at dozens of cases that might need to go to another prosecuting agency.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s Office has requested more time to review the Supreme Court’s decision to vacate a ruling against Travis Wayne Bentley.

The Supreme Court vacated the appeals court judgment against Bentley in light of the McGirt decision.

In that case, the state disputed Bentley’s jurisdictional claims that he should have been tried in federal court because he is a Choctaw Nation tribal member. The state claims that Bentley does not qualify for relief on the jurisdictional issue because his manslaughter conviction was based on a vehicle collision that occurred in Cleveland County, which is outside the historic boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation or any of the four other tribes that have been considered to have treaties similar to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s — the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations.

Bentley claims that the history of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation involves “conflicting evidence” as to its reservation and reservation status.

Finally, a lawsuit filed Monday in Okmulgee County District Court seeks class-action status on behalf of tribal members, saying that “for more than a century the state of Oklahoma and its political subdivisions have investigated, detained, charged, arrested, imprisoned, fined and otherwise taken large sums of money from Native American people without authority of law.”

The lawsuit names Gov. Kevin Stitt, Kunzweiler and the district attorneys for other counties, as well as 39 cities and towns.

All of this comes as a tentative agreement between the state and affected tribes to push Congress for legislation that would return much of the state’s prosecutorial power to pre-McGirt status appeared to fall apart by Friday.

Hunter on Thursday announced that an agreement-in-principle had been reached with the five tribes affected by the court decision. The agreement seeks federal legislation to clarify the roles of the tribal nations, state and federal government as related to the impact of the McGirt case.

Among the goals is to affirm “the Five Tribes’ criminal jurisdiction throughout their respective treaty territories over Indian offenders and non-Indians where the tribe has jurisdiction, such as domestic abusers covered by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act.

The agreement also asks Congress to “provide and affirm the State’s criminal jurisdiction over all offenders throughout the same area, including appropriate and legal mechanisms to address matters concerning existing convictions, with the exception of crimes involving Indians committed on Indian trust or restricted lands.”

But while the release said the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Muscogee (Creek) nations were all on board with the agreement, the Seminole Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation announced Friday that they were never part of the deal.

Asked about the discrepancy, Gerszewski initially issued the following response:

“We will refer you to the Seminole Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation for further comment on their statements. Attorney General Hunter believes this is a dynamic process that will involve a patient and continuing conversation with all five tribes. We look forward to continuing that dialogue with tribal leaders.”

Later Friday, Hunter himself issued a statement saying he was disappointed in the two nations who he said were withdrawing from the pact.

Rob Rosette, attorney general for the Seminole Nation, said Friday that neither Chief Greg Chilcoat nor he was aware of the agreement-in-principle prior to its release.

Positive statements attributed to Chilcoat in the news release about the agreement were in regard to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation seeing its historic sovereign status being affirmed by the Supreme Court, Rosette said.

Also, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill said in a Facebook post later Thursday that the agreement was a “framework in regards to the Five Tribes and not to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.”

“This agreement is provided solely to address the immediate transitional period as we address inter-governmental cooperation agreements consistent with the court’s decision and will give the MCN a voice in any potential congressional legislation,” Hill wrote.

He went on to say the nation did not agree that federal legislation was necessary.

On Friday, Hill issued another statement indicating that the tribe was “not in agreement with the proposed agreement-in-principle document released by the state Thursday.


Let's Talk virtual town hall continues Tuesday on the topic of evictions

Tulsa’s eviction crisis will be the topic of the next Tulsa World Let’s Talk virtual town hall.

Eric Hallett, an attorney and coordinator of housing advocacy for Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, and the Rev. Jeff Jaynes, executive director of Restore Hope Ministries, will be guests on the program, which will be posted on the Tulsa World Facebook page Wednesday morning.

The discussion will be moderated by Wayne Greene, editor of the Tulsa World’s editorial pages.

Questions for the event can be submitted to before 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Tulsa World’s Let’s Talk virtual town halls are sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.