Vietnam vet shares heritage with Airmen

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- A retired lieutenant colonel, who served two tours in Vietnam shared his service heritage with about 200 Airmen from the 552nd Air Control Wing and other members of Team Tinker last week.

Lt. Col. Michael E. Sloniker's appearance on Feb. 20 in the Team Tinker Auditorium was the latest in a line of guest speakers 552nd ACW Commander Col. Jay Bickley has brought in to remind his Airmen of their impressive and proud heritage.

Colonel Sloniker served in the U.S. Army for 23 years and served two tours in Vietnam. His first tour was as a field artillery officer, serving from 1967-1968. His second tour was as a UH-1H Iroquois helicopter pilot and platoon leader.

The Vietnam veteran served with distinction, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism on his second tour.

Acknowledging he "didn't speak Air Force too well," Colonel Sloniker had nothing but praise for the noncommissioned officers, crew chiefs and warrant officers he encountered over his career and he spoke highly of each.

"When you do a job well and a young infantry NCO comes up to you and says, 'You have potential. That stirs you, and it's a good thing,'" he said. "That right there showed me the importance of the (NCO) corps we worked with.

"Being a forward observer, you work closely with the infantry."

Colonel Sloniker earned his commission through the ROTC program at Oklahoma State University on May 28, 1967.

After completing Airborne School and the Field Artillery Basic Officer Course at Fort Sill, Okla., Colonel Sloniker served as a field artillery officer with C Battery, 2nd Battalion, 319th Field Artillery of the 101st Airborne "Screamin Eagles" Division in South Vietnam.
"I was the youngest first lieutenant field artillery officer supporting an artillery unit at the time," he said.

Colonel Sloniker's next assignment was as a Gunnery Instructor at the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, from 1968-1970. That was followed by Rotary-Wing Flight School at Fort Wolters, Texas, and at Fort Rucker, Ala., from March to November 1970.

Having been born at Fort Sill on Aug. 27, 1945, Colonel Sloniker said he wasn't surprised when the Army sent him there to train, since Fort Sill is the official "Home of the Field Artillery." However, he said he was hoping to go "somewhere a little more exciting."
"I grew up as a teenager in Lawton and worked extremely hard to get out of there," Colonel Sloniker said. "During my first tour of Vietnam, I went back to Fort Sill as a gunnery instructor. I taught one class with 35 Army pilots, who gave me a hard time and I gave it back.

"Their spirit and example gave me the impetus to go to Army Rotary Wing training."
He said his students averaged 95 on gunnery tests, something he was most proud of.
"One day I went to the club after work and met a flight surgeon," he said. "He suggested I take a flight physical and apply for flight school."

Colonel Sloniker recalled one mission on his first tour of Vietnam when his pilot got shot and he flew the helicopter safely to their home base.

"(The pilot) died, but I got a lot of respect after that," he said.

He later served as a battery commander with the 6th Battalion, 92nd Field Artillery of the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas, from 1970 to 1971, and then as Operations Officer of A Company, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion of the 1st Calvary Division at Chu Lai, South Vietnam, from July to October 1971.

Colonel Sloniker said he was teaching Soldiers how to shoot Howitzers at Fort Sill until he had to go back to Vietnam in 1971.

"My career started by building outstanding relationships with NCOs, crew chiefs and warrant officers," he said.

Colonel Sloniker said infantry Soldiers referred to him as "Red Leg" because of his background in artillery. He recalled one instance when his men were lobbing artillery throughout the night and struck an elephant carrying enemy ammunition.
"They painted Dumbo on my helmet after that," he said.

Colonel Sloniker next served as Executive Officer and then Operations Officer for A Company, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division in Bien Hoa Army Base, South Vietnam, from October 1971 to June 1972. He then attended the Field Artillery Advanced Course at Fort Sill, from July 1972 to June 1973.

He later served as Battery Commander of C Battery, 3rd Battalion (Airborne), 319th Field Artillery of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., from July 1973 to June 1975, and then as a Liaison Officer, AH-1G Cobra pilot, and Operations Officer with the 4th Battalion of the 77th Field Artillery of the 101st Airborne Division from June 1975 to May 1977.

Colonel Sloniker recalled his first "Air Force adventure" where he had to "jump out of a burning C-130," and his second where the aircraft in which he was riding "struck a caribou on the runway." He said both incidents shook him a little, but he accepted it as somewhat normal.

He recalled being stationed at Fire Base 411 located on a hilltop about 7 kilometers from Laos and another incident on Hamburger Hill where 22 infantry Soldiers "didn't make it."
"Five of those guys had five days remaining in Vietnam," he said. "We have to pay tribute (because) if somebody's dead and you don't remember them, they're just dead. I'm never going to forget them."

Colonel Sloniker would go on to serve with the 501st Aviation Battalion at Katterbach, West Germany, before returning to Fort Sill. He attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., from July 1981 to June 1982, and then served as a Combat Development Officer in the Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe, Va.

The colonel later served as an acquisition officer until his retirement from the Army on Oct. 1, 1990.

Colonel Sloniker spoke passionately about the helicopter pilots in Vietnam and gave the titles of several books he felt told the "real" story of the conflict there. He also highlighted the 552's combat record from April 1965-May 1974, when the unit had a 98 percent sortie success rate while logging 98,777 combat hours in the old 2EC-121 "Connie" aircraft.

The 552nd ACW's next heritage event will be held March 12 in the Team Tinker Auditorium and feature retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, who currently serves as the Oklahoma Secretary of Veterans Affairs. The event will also coincide with Women's History Month.

General Aragon will be talking about Wonder Woman and WWII and how Wonder Woman changed the "idea" of women serving in defense of the nation.