TORONTO, Ohio (WTRF) – Call it fate, call it luck, or call it a coincidence. Mike Bongart’s life and military service have been filled with all three.
It took him two tries to enlist in the Army. At first, he did not pass the physical. So, instead, he took flying lessons to become a pilot.
Eventually, he was able to enlist in January of 1966 and went to Officer Candidate School after basic training, become a helicopter pilot. Bongart was then sent to Vietnam.
I saw a lot of pain and suffering, and I felt some myself.U.S. Army Veteran Mike Bongart
Bongart was assigned to be an aircraft commander in Vietnam. It wasn’t long after he arrived in the country that he was wounded.
He was flying into a landing zone when his helicopter took fire. He was able to land, and get his crew to safety.
My one door gunner came back and he was helping me get the shoulder straps off and he said to me ‘I can’t believe you’re still alive’ and I said ‘what do you mean?’ he said ‘look at your windshield’ and I looked up and there was about seven bullet holes that just did an arc right above my head.”U.S. Army Veteran Mike Bongart
Bongart and his team hid in a rice paddy and waited to be evacuated. While there a Vietcong began firing on them and a mortar shard pierced the back of his head and he lost consciousness.
The best way I can put it, I went into an out of body experience. When I regained consciousness I heard the machine gun fire and I heard this strange voice yelling at me ‘you gotta breathe you gotta breathe sir’.U.S. Army Veteran Mike Bongart
That voice was Army medic Duane Garver, who refused to give up on Bongart.
Blowing blood out of the back of my head and they thought I was dead because I stopped breathing. As he was coming to me they kind of let me down and one of them said ‘let him go he’s dead’, but he grabbed me threw me up on the bank. He said it only took about three breaths before I started coming around.U.S. Army Veteran Mike Bongart
Bongart’s rescue was captured by ABC News cameras, who happened to be flying with that medical crew.
He was taken to Dong Tam and evacuated by helicopter. Bongart then underwent neurosurgery to remove a piece of his brain that had shrapnel lodged in it.
It took years of recovery before he was able to fly again. While waiting to be cleared for flight status, he stayed active in Savannah, Georgia and went through an instrument training course.
He also reunited with Garver, who saved his life.
Finally, Bongart was sent back to Vietnam and flew direct to combat support.
Second tour was tough because first tour I was invincible and second tour I was vulnerable.U.S. Army Veteran Mike Bongart
Bongart eventually resigned his commission in February of 1972.
After returning home, he was unable to be a pilot again because of medical records.
Instead, he worked for the PA Public Utilities Commission, owned a photography business and became a minister, which led him to Ohio.