Typically, Veterans Day is reserved for celebration, honoring those who served their country and came back alive to friends, families and loved ones.
Next Monday in Valley Stream, however, the village will honor a native who never returned, and whose sacrifice in the Vietnam War has gone unrecognized until now.
Army 1st Lt. Robert Mason was born in Valley Stream in 1947, and attended Central High School. But according to village officials, be-cause he and his family moved to Babylon in 1963, before he would have graduated from Central, he was left off the village monument dedicated to Valley Stream service members who died in the line of duty.
Through the efforts of the Valley Stream American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the village will rectify this oversight by adding Mason’s name to the monument, on the northeast corner of the Village Green.
“It’s a very compelling and moving story,” Mayor Ed Fare said. Mason’s “life ended tragically in Vietnam, [and he] was not originally on the Valley Stream monument because his family had moved away. We didn’t know his story, and even when we found out, we assumed that he would be remembered in his new community.”
Mason was killed at age 22, on July 1, 1969, while returning from a combat-support mission, when the Bell UH-1C, or Huey, helicopter he was piloting — an attack variant of the two-bladed, single-engine transport used in the war — went down in a monsoon near Saigon, South Vietnam.
According to Jerry Lange, a friend of Mason’s in Valley Stream, the helicopter lacked the flight-control systems that would have helped him fly safely in such conditions.
Becoming disoriented, Mason reportedly crashed into the 100-foot-tall canopy of a bamboo jungle, the craft’s tail rotor becoming entangled in the thick stalks and sending it tumbling. The Army searched for Mason’s aircraft for 10 days, but the foliage was so thick at the crash site, Lange said, that it wasn’t until two months later that a patrolling infantry platoon came across the bodies of Mason and his co-pilot.
Mason’s Huey was one of roughly 5,000 helicopters lost, both in and out of combat, over the course of the Vietnam War, with their pilots and passengers killed.
“I’m glad the Village of Valley Stream and the American Legion are [being] more inclusive and making things right,” Lange said. “Robert was a very intelligent and hardworking guy, because he volunteered in the Army at a time when many weren’t volunteering.”
Although the draft was in place at the time, of the more than nine million U.S. military personnel who served in Vietnam from 1964 to 1975, Mason was one of the 2.5 million who enlisted, despite the war’s unpopularity back home.
According to Lange, although many Americans opposed the war on moral grounds and for other reasons, Mason decided to serve because he was generous and wanted to help his country.
Robert’s brother, Todd, agreed. “The Vietnam War wasn’t popular, but my brother still enlisted because that was the type of person he was,” he said. “I wish my brother didn’t die, but I’m proud of who he was as a human being and as a soldier.”