Written by Randy Tucker
It was a situation all too common in families anywhere in America. After building a house, differences split a married couple apart. But this separation led to a very different outcome.
At 15 Aloysious Bell of Beaver Creek on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, found himself all alone at the new home he had helped his father build in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. His father, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, and his mom, a Northern Arapaho were having marital problems.
“Mom and dad separated,” Bell said. “Mom took all the younger brothers and sisters and dad said I was going with him but I said no. We just built a house; I stayed in it all by myself during my freshman and sophomore year. I supported myself by working for the NYC (Neighborhood Youth Corp).”
A teenager living alone is a recipe for problems and Bell soon found himself in trouble.
“I went to jail for a week. Nobody knew until my uncle found out and got me out. I knew I was getting nowhere, it was dire straits out there,” Bell said. “I found out my mother moved to Rapid City so I hitchhiked up there to look for my mom. It took me two days to find her. She was very happy to see me.”
Bell had a plan for his life even though he was only 16. “I got mom and dad back together and waited until everything was warm again,” Bell said. “I told them I want to join the Army. They didn’t want me to enlist. The war in Vietnam was on TV all the time. I told them I am firm in my choice.”
His parents tried to talk him out of it but the 5-6, 125-pound teenager was firm in his choice. He went to the Army recruiter in Rapid City and his parents signed the paperwork for him to enlist. The problem was that he was still only 16 and had to be 17 to enlist in the Army. He had to wait until his birthday in February of 1968.
Times were tough but he and his family managed to raise $7.00 to pay his expenses while he took his induction test in Sioux Falls.
“Mom put me on the bus with just the clothes I had on. They put me up at the YMCA for 50 cents a day and gave me a food voucher. We thought I was going right into the Army so I only had the clothes on my back.”
Bell passed all the tests and was about to take his oath to join the Army when he was pulled out of the line.
“I was still too young to enlist,” he laughed remembering that day. “I turned 17 on February 22, but they made me wait until February 29, 1968 to take my oath.”
He took his first flight in a commercial jet to Ft. Lewis, Washington, and took basic training there. He went directly to AIT after basic without the chance to go home.
“I enlisted with Fred “Rex” Shaw from Pine Ridge on the buddy-buddy system, but once we were out of basic I never saw him again,” Bell said. “I signed up to be a carpenter since I had learned how to build houses with my dad when I was 12, but they changed my MOS to 51M20 Army crash rescue and recovery.
It was a natural but strange transition for a boy who is afraid of heights to eventually work in air crash and rescue. He took his aircraft firefighter training at Ft. Rucker, Alabama graduating in the top five of a class of over 160 men. Bell didn’t fly right away, instead delivering food to ground firefighter rescue units at neighboring airbases.
The duty was hot and humid for a boy from the Black Hills. The heat and humidity of summer in Alabama was a drastic change for Bell, one he didn’t like very much.
“One day I was stopped and asked if I wanted to join Flatiron, the Ft. Rucker crash, and rescue unit,’ Bell said. “I said I had a good job already but they told me this one was air-conditioned.”
With a chance to get out of the heat he agreed and soon he was training in the white and green helicopters with the big Red Cross on the fuselage.
He took extra training in advanced first aid, eventually reaching the Army equivalent of a civilian EMT. His team consisted of two pilots, a medic, another chief beside himself, and an MP.
Bell excelled at the position and made rank quickly, reaching Spec.4 in just seven months. He was turned down for promotion to sergeant and later recommended to warrant officer because he was still 17 it was against regulations for someone that young to make that rank.
At Ft. Rucker he began actual rescues of many downed aircraft and helicopters. Air crashes are rare now but they were occurring constantly during the training phase for deployment to Vietnam, even in Flatiron helicopters.
“We crashed stateside, but I never crashed in Vietnam,” Bell remembered. “Some of the crew members asked to be transferred, not wanting to fly again, but I wanted to fly since it was a job I'd gotten very good at and the adventure it offered. They called me a crazy Indian for wanting to get back into the helicopters.”
In one of many recoveries, a Chinook helicopter crashed in the Alabama wilderness and Bell and his crew were sent to the scene. “We couldn't land so I dropped down on a cable to the crash. I found a body, then a second body, a third still inside the Chinook. There was a bright battery phosphorus light burning near the chopper,” Bell said. “In the bright light I didn’t see an Alabama state trooper who arrived on the scene. We both jumped scaring each other.”
Farmers began arriving on the scene to help but Bell had to keep them back until MPs showed up and secured the site.
“We bagged the bodies and carried them out,” Bell said. “A dead person is heavy. We took them over to another Chinook and they told me to ride with them but I didn’t want to get on since we’d just worked on one that crashed.”
Soon he received orders for Vietnam but once again his age was an issue. A new law passed prohibiting 17-year old soldiers in combat so he had to wait once again until he turned 18.
He qualified on the M14 in basic initially but received additional training on the M16 and other firearms. “My uncle taught me how to shoot back home,” Bell said.
“It was like the song “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul, and Mary when my orders for Vietnam finally came.”
In July 1968 he returned home for the only time after his grandmother was killed crossing the highway south of Riverton, Wyoming. They held a special blanket dance during Ethete Pow Wow for him.
His parents had moved to the Wind River Reservation while he was in training.
He flew from Riverton to Denver then on to Vietnam.
He did a full tour in Vietnam then started a second when orders came for him to return home and he was processed out of the Army at Oakland, California.
He returned home intact but with severe hearing damage in his right ear after an explosion went off close to his head.
He returned home in November 1970 and a strange letter arrived from the government just before he turned 20 in February of 1971. The two-tour veteran with a combat disability received a draft notice.
“You are hereby drafted into the armed forces of the United States,” Bell said. “How can they do that we all thought?”
The family got a good laugh out of the draft notice and Bell went to the local recruiter’s office in the old Lander, Post Office to straighten out the mess.
“They said we’ll sign you up. I told them I had my DD214 and they didn’t know why I had a draft letter,” Bell said. “They finally figured out that since every 18-year old has to sign up for the draft and I was active duty when I turned 18 that the notice was sent to me.”
They gave him a draft card anyway but his was printed with “prior duty service” on it. “It meant I was exempt from the draft,” Bell said. “I burned my draft card in protest at a rally later but nobody knew that I’d already been in and wasn’t eligible to be drafted.
He returned to a time and place where you had to be 21 to drink, vote, or buy a rifle. “I tried to buy a .22 at the Coast to Coast in Lander but they refused, saying I was too young. I told them I just back from Vietnam. I’d fired M60s, 50 cals, grenade launchers, and BARs but they wouldn’t do it. I was furious,” he said. “My mom calmed me down outside. She went back in and bought the rifle for me.”
Bell tallied 2700 flight hours and served in combat areas throughout Vietnam.
His grandfather was wounded twice in World War II fighting the Germans in Europe. His grandfather’s Lakota warrior name was Hanpa Nasica, meaning Bad Moccasin.
“My grandfather told me I would receive this name when I returned from Vietnam,” Bell said. He is the third man in his family honored with this warrior name.
His service to the United States might seem gruesome to many but he did a difficult job with honor and dedication and served his nation well.
Bell now lives a quiet life on the Wind River Reservation, watching his grandchildren grow, and compete in athletics. He remains a warrior in the greatest tradition of the Lakota and Arapaho people.