Hardened Steel Knife with a Mosaic Pin Handle
When I was approached by Bullets and Bandaids, I didn’t know what they were expecting. I don’t make museum pieces. My work isn’t typically about being pretty. It’s about function. My knives are meant to be appreciated for the way they hold an edge, how they’re balance, and how they are meant to be the right blade for the right job. However, when I read Larry’s story, it started to make sense. I started realizing that if they had approached me, they knew what they were asking for. And if they didn’t, they’d find out what I’d give them soon enough.
I created a hunter-fighter knife because that is what he was. A hunter and fighter. The gun-metal finish was for obvious reasons, intentionally not meant to be mirrored except for the cutting edge itself. The mosaic pin speaks to the individuality of the man himself, and the osage handle, like the hardened steel, speaks to the man’s constitution. I also made it slightly larger and didn’t know why at first. I just did it. But then I thought maybe it fit because I felt he was bigger than life. Or maybe I just wanted to show how great my gratitude is for him and his sacrifice.
by Ron Osso
He’s an award-winning writer, a lean Six Sigma Black Belt, an Honors Graduate of two police academies, and the founder and past CEO of CLC Hospice.
He’s been a teacher of college economics, industrial operations, business, aeronautics, and technical writing. Larry’s newspaper and magazine articles on leadership, logistics, aeronautics, hospice, veterans’ benefits, and law enforcement have been published in over 20 magazines and newspapers in the US, Germany, and England. His leadership articles have been used by dozens of civilian companies and government organizations to stimulate thought on what good leadership is.
But what Larry Dandridge is most proud of is what he has been able to do for the VA Medical Center and Fisher House, in Charleston, SC, where he serves as a Patient Adviser and Good Will Ambassador. Dandridge and his book, Blades of Thunder (Book One), about the controversial Vietnam War, were instrumental in raising over $5,500,000 to purchase the land on which Fisher House was constructed.
Since its opening in 2018, Fisher House Charleston has been a home away from home for families of veterans receiving care at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Hospital. Families stay at no cost, for as long as their loved one is hospitalized.
Larry Dandridge’s military career began as an enlisted man at Fort Polk, LA in 1967. He served as a Warrant Officer Pilot from 1968 to 1970. His career ended more than twenty-four years later as a Lieutenant Colonel.
As a Warrant Officer, he began flying Tiger Huey Slicks, utility troop, and cargo transport helicopters, then later Viking Huey Gunships (attack helicopters). He also flew Viper Cobra attack helicopters in the 235th Aerial Weapons Company in Vietnam. He flew 1,800 sorties during his seven months in Vietnam and was shot down three times. Larry said,
“The first shoot down was not even exciting and was caused when my Huey Gunship took a round through the tail rotor drive. The second and third shoot downs were more traumatic, with the third resulting in five months in hospitals in Vietnam, Japan, IL, and GA.”
The first time he was shot down, Dandridge was carrying ammunition to resupply troops in the heat of battle. As soon as he began to come down through a small opening in the jungle canopy, he and his men began taking heavy fire. They couldn’t leave the landing zone because they had to get heavy ammunition cargo off-loaded. His aircraft commander was hit in the chest with a one-foot long plex glass shard that nearly nailed him to his seat. When the enemy’s bullet crashed through the windshield, Larry took dozens of shards of Plexiglas to his face. To make matters worse the aircraft was shot through the nose compartment, the center console, and transmission numerous times and caught fire. So, offloading the ammo became even more urgent.
“By the grace of God and two brave light observation helicopter (called Loaches) crews, we were able to get the ammo off and fly out. The Loaches really saved our lives by putting themselves between us and the enemy, while firing 4,000 rounds a minute at them from their minigun.”
Once out of the area, Dandridge and crew, while wounded, were able to land in a rice patty, called MAYDAY, and struggled to a dike for cover. Within minutes one of the Ninth Infantry Division Brigade Commanders picked up his crew and transported them to a nearby hospital. After leaving the hospital, Larry and his crew chief and door gunner helped recover, under brief mortar fire, their inoperable helicopter.
“And that was the end of that exciting day.”
But it wasn’t the worst experience he had in Vietnam. He was flying an overweight Huey gunship. He’d just gotten to the assault area when the helicopter’s tail rotor and 90-degree gearbox were blown off. The Huey immediately went into a rapid spin and almost inverted. But he was able to slow down the ship by auto rotating, which disengaged the main rotor and slowed the spin.
“We were still spinning so fast when we crashed, we should have all been killed.”
They all had severe injuries, including broken backs, shattered ankles, broken legs, fractured jaws, traumatic brain injuries, and deep lacerations.
Both crew chief and door gunner were thrown from the helicopter when it crashed. Fortunately, transport helicopters were nearby and able to rescue the crew and transport them to a major Army hospital.
The third time he survived a shoot down, Dandridge had been in Vietnam seven months, and sustained severe injuries that caused him to spend months recuperating at hospitals in Saigon, Japan, Scott Airforce Base in IL, and Fort Gordon, GA.
“It took a while but eventually I began feeling better. I was relieved, but at the same time thought they might send me back to Vietnam, because if you could get better within sixty days, enough to return to flight duty, you were going back. I’d be lying if I said I wanted to.”
Eventually he was declared fit for duty and spent time training pilots at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, GA.
For his service, he was awarded the Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, German Silver Cross, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, five Army Meritorious Service medals, and fifteen Combat Air Medals.
When asked about how it affected him, he paused for a few seconds.
“Well, it wasn’t until much later in my life that some of the things that happened in the war in Vietnam and later in Iran began to bother me. About fourteen or fifteen years ago, I started to think about some of the things that happened in Vietnam and Iran, and they interfered with my life and sleep patterns. I was grieving, sometimes depressed, hyper-vigilant, sometimes short tempered, and suffering from anxiety.”
He decided to go to PTSD counseling and at least be evaluated. Of course, he was diagnosed with PTSD.
“The treatment was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It got worse before it began to get easier. I had the most wonderful psychologist. She helped me realize I was treating myself by working far too many hours. Essentially, I was a workaholic!”
As long as he kept busy, Dandridge didn’t think about what had taken place in the war. After he and his therapist dug through several layers of darkness, Larry discovered that he was having trouble forgiving himself for an incident where his Cobra Fire Team killed a couple of Vietnamese, who were mistaken for enemy soldiers.
“When I found out they were farmers, it bothered the shit out of me. I mean, I was adopted by a farm family. I grew up on a farm, I was on my grandparents farm every year, and I just kept thinking it could have been my grandfather and my grandmother and what if some son-of-a-bitch tried to kill them.”
There’s a long pause as he thinks about what to say next.
“Ya know I can kind of rationalize killing the enemy, but I am sorry I had to kill in Vietnam. I really think killing someone is wrong and so unnatural for a human being to do, and it’s going to trouble them for the rest of their lives. We warriors even had empathy and sometimes sympathy for the enemy because we understood what they were doing for their comrades and their country. I couldn’t get them out of my mind, I felt like I was going to hell because of killing those two farmers.”
It was then his therapist asked, “You don’t think killing an enemy in a war is murder, do you?” It was the first time Dandridge thought of it in that context, and it was helpful. Then he spoke about the next to last PTSD therapy he did to begin wrapping up his therapy.
“I came into her office, and she had three chairs set up. She told me to sit in one that faced the other two, that those chairs represented the two Vietnamese farmers, and she wanted me to tell them, whatever I wish I could if they were still alive. So, I said, that’s going to be hard, and it was. Then, even worse, I was going to sit in each of the other chairs and pretend I was the farmers and tell myself what I thought they would say to me today, and oh man that was, well it was an awful experience. It was a terrible, terrible thing to do.”
“But I’ll tell you, as soon as it was over, I felt like a damn elephant had been lifted from my shoulders.”
During his final visit with the therapist, she had him write and sign a contract that he wouldn’t blame himself for what happened with the farmers, or for a buddy getting his head blown off, and other things that had been weighing on him. And if he started suffering from grief and guilt, sadness, depression, and anxiety, he promised to come back to the VA and get help.
“But I never went back. I’ve been less traumatized and able to sleep and function at a higher level since then.”
The interview was essentially over but he began to talk about how everyone should experience some form of government service.
“Not necessarily the military, but some kind of give back, because you know the old thing, freedom is not free, and it shouldn’t be free. I also tell people, who are not sure what they’re going to do with their lives, about all the good things the military offers young men and women, like: terrific training, free education while in and after they get out, three hots and a cot, the best friends you’ll ever have, and you’ll mature, and probably have a better idea of what you want to do by the time your enlistment is over.”
A thoughtful look came over his face and I asked him what he was thinking about.
“Well, the military isn’t perfect, neither is the VA, but it upsets me when soldiers I know say things like F*&k the Army. I respond by saying, you are the Army, we all are the Army. Instead of complaining, let’s make it better together.”
Today Larry Dandridge is going to graduate school full time seeking a master’s degree in Creative Writing, working as a free-lance writer for a local newspaper. He’s married, has five children, nine grandchildren, and Xander, a miniature Italian Greyhound. He likes to write, fish, play tennis and pickleball, exercise at the gym, do a lot of volunteer work, and he loves to spoil his grandkids.
W. Larry Dandridge, a complex man, a gentle man, and a compassionate warrior.