As a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, Joe Keating flew through hell and survived.
“I don’t want to say I was ever shot down, but I’ve had more holes put through my helicopter than I can count,” said Keating, 70. “That’s a God incidence. I remember on Mother’s Day 1970. I got caught in a crossfire with a North Vietnamese battalion. I was forced down. I was able to fly to one of my safe areas and land. My helicopter looked like Swiss cheese. The God incidence was that not a single, critical component of the helicopter was hit nor was a single person in our four-person crew injured.”
Whether dropping off or picking up troops, delivering supplies or evacuating wounded soldiers, Keating logged 1,200 flight hours in a Bell UH-1 “Huey” helicopter while serving a one-year tour with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970.
Flying helicopters was among the most dangerous jobs during Vietnam. About 5,000 helicopter pilots and crew members were killed in action.
“My unit wrote a little poem about me, ‘The California kid that got shot down,’” added Keating, a Southeast Christian Church member. “It used to be a joke around them, ‘Don’t go with him because if you do, you’re going to get all shot up.’”
Keating, who grew up in California, said that even though he wasn’t a Christian in Vietnam, he knows God was his protector.
“I really believe the Lord was very much involved in keeping me safe, and He had a plan for me,” he said.
Keating enrolled in college full-time after graduating from high school, which gave him a deferment from being drafted; however, a change in his class schedule resulted in him getting drafted at age 19 in May 1968.
“It’s funny, I dropped a class on Tuesday, and I procrastinated like I used to do,” Keating said.
“I go, ‘It’s not until next Monday that I have to add another class. Thursday of that week I was drafted … I got a letter saying, ‘You need to report to Oakland Army Base and take your physical. Bring a toothbrush.’ I was thinking, ‘Lord, help me.’ I didn’t believe in God all that much, but I was scared.”
Like most soldiers, Keating tried his best to avoid kitchen patrol, otherwise known as KP duty.
“The only way you could get out of KP was to take a test and apply to different schools,” Keating added. “I applied to different schools … one being helicopter flight training. By the way, I did succeed. I never did KP. I didn’t want to peel potatoes and wash pots and pans.”
After basic training, Keating received a notice he was accepted to flight school.
Man on the moon
During his service as a helicopter pilot, Keating woke up not knowing what each day would bring. He got a daily briefing at 4 a.m.
“They could say, ‘You’re going up to this company that’s out in the field. They have 30 to 40 guys in foxholes, and they need fresh food, ammunition or something else,’” Keating said. “We’d go, fly out and support them. That may be my task for the day. Some days I’d be out in the field all day, but have only two to three hours flying.”
Keating pulled injured soldiers out of the mud on some occasions, while other times he transported them back in body bags.
“When you see your friends killed, that lasts for a few minutes; you go to their service, then you get in your helicopter and go back again,” Keating added. “You can’t worry about it.”
Because the Army wanted soldiers to focus on their mission, Keating had no idea of what was going on back home.
“When I was in country, there was nothing else going on in the world,” Keating added. “It wasn’t until years later that I realized NASA landed on the moon. I go, ‘I would have never known that.’ All that I knew was that I got up in the morning, flew on my mission, came home, got some sleep and got up in the morning. I did that for a year.”
Keating said God used his one year of service as a helicopter pilot to set the course for his life.
“What started as a career in flying determined my entire life … I just moved up the ranks,” Keating said.
He worked in various positions and bases around the country as an Army Reserve and Civil Service flight instructor.
Keating eventually got a job with the Federal Aviation Administration in Louisville.
Shortly thereafter, he heard former Southeast Senior Minister Bob Russell preaching on the radio while he was driving to Fort Knox.
“I really think the Holy Spirit was working on me,” Keating said. “I always think He was there to help me, but I drew away from it as much as I could. I got to that point in my 30s where there needed to be something else. It’s the old, typical thing that ‘there’s got to be something else.’ I was searching and then I heard Bob on the radio and I go, ‘Oh, this could be pretty good.’”
Keating, who was raised Catholic, began attending Southeast in 1989 with his family. He was baptized in March 1994.
Keating retired in 2003 and has taught small groups at Southeast and now leads a Precepts Bible study class and co-leads Journey, a weekend group that meets at Southeast’s Blankenbaker Campus.
“I’ve realized that aviation was really fun and exciting,” Keating added. “When I got back from Vietnam and started teaching, teaching became my life … God has truly given me that as a spiritual gift.”