NEW FAIRFIELD – When Tom McGurn retired from 40-year careers in both the military and the police force, he began to put pen to paper in sharing stories about his life, in particular about the intense time he fought in the Vietnam War in 1969 and 1970. His efforts culminated in the recently published Check Ride, a book that provides raw accounts of experiences McGurn had as a young adult living trial-by-fire through combat. McGurn says that check ride is a term that’s used throughout military flight school to measure success in progressing through skills and is one that he adapted as a touchpoint to gauge phases throughout his life.
“You learn very fast,” McGurn says of his time flying Huey helicopters for the Army in Vietnam while running missions to provide transport for ranger infils and exfils, for shipborne operations, combat assaults, assisting the SEALS, and more. With encouragement from his wife, Paula, and four daughters, McGurn recorded the harrowing actions and thoughts surrounding missions that live strong in his memory to date. He describes life while stationed at Phan Thiet, also known as Landing Zone (LZ) Betty, which he describes as a dirt farm–and is ironically a touristy beach and resort area now. He details not only scenes of war which candidly covers an early era of Army aviation without the aids of critical future technological advances such as GPS, night vision goggles, and heads-up displays, but also everyday life, such as what was often for dinner, on the base.
Growing up in Yonkers, New York, McGurn explained in our interview that he didn’t enlist for service, instead attending Westchester Community College for a couple of years before deciding it wasn’t for him. A remarkably efficient draft in place, the government contacted him within two weeks of deciding to leave college, saying that it was time to join the military. McGurn remembered seeing a pamphlet at his alma mater, Sacred Heart High School in Yonkers, seeking candidates who were interested in going from “High School to Flight School” and was happy to hear that the Army was still looking for attendees.
McGurn found that flying was a calling in his life and is appreciative of his time in Flight School. Skills that he learned both in school and in the Vietnam War carried him forward when he returned to the states in 1970 and considered next moves. With careers in aviation tight at the time, and layoffs prevalent in airlines, McGurn took a position on the police force in Westchester County and ended up staying for 40 years with an eventual shift to sergeant and work as a narcotics detective.
With flying in his blood, McGurn joined the National Guard when he returned from Vietnam and would frequently fly missions out of Islip, especially around New York City. Just following 9/11, he describes in the book a surreal mission to transport Al-Qaeda suspects in New York City from the Wall Street Heliport (now known as the Downtown Manhattan Heliport) and also addresses his time being called to active duty to fly Blackhawk helicopters in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
“I’ve had a long life” McGurn said, and writing the book was in part a way to salute he often thinks of them, especially in times like the holidays, saying “I’m living part of this life for you.” With the book complete, the New Fairfield retiree has plans that are focused on travel and spending time with family and friends, but keeps his memories of fellow soldiers active. He says in Check Ride that, “when I’m enjoying some special time in my life, I try and remember those who didn’t get the chances I did, and those whom always stayed forever young, but not forgotten while I breathe.”
Check Ride, by Thomas McGurn, is available online at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.
By Sarah Opdahl