It was neither the time nor the place for love.
Harry Wisdom landed his Army medevac helicopter at the U.S. Army base hospital in Long Binh, Vietnam, on the Đồng Nai River near Saigon. It was late May 1970.
Wisdom — the aviation staff officer in charge of all medical aircraft in Vietnam — was on another of the hundreds of medical evacuation missions he flew during two tours as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. The soldier Wisdom was transporting had been shot in the head and needed urgent attention.
After Wisdom landed, a monsoon descended, grounding his chopper. He settled in for the night and went to the officers' club. A Filipino band was playing. Wisdom was a good swing dancer, and he wasn't afraid to show off his skills.
"And that just so happened to be where this nurse was at," Wisdom said on a recent afternoon in his Burnsville home. "I met this Army ER nurse, and the rest is history."
Fifty-two years later, on a chilly evening in late April, Wisdom and his wife, Kathy, made history of another sort. The couple, who have been married for more than half a century, were honored by the St. Paul Saints AAA baseball team as "Hero and Heroine" of the game.
Best of all for Wisdom, it was a total surprise for his wife, a Bronze Star recipient. Kathy tends to downplay her years in the service when compared to her husband's decades in the military.
"It was important to me at the time," she said of her own military service, "but life gets busy. There was one hero in the family."
Harry respectfully disagrees.
Building a life together
Wisdom is 82 now. His stint in Vietnam feels like a lifetime ago — and like yesterday. It was the most harrowing part of a 25-year military career that sent him around the world until he settled in the Twin Cities almost 40 years ago.
Joining him on his living room couch was Kathy, a former Army nurse and first lieutenant. Under a portrait of their four children and eight grandchildren, the two held hands, speaking in wonder about how the most intense, difficult test of their lives led them to this meaningful life together.
The former Kathy Brown grew up an Army brat in the United States and Germany. She enrolled in nursing school near Philadelphia, then enlisted in the military. In November of 1969, she headed to Vietnam for a yearlong tour.
At the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, she worked 12-hour days, six days a week. It was physically and emotionally exhausting, mostly caring for young soldiers with serious head or back injuries. She helped stabilize them for surgery before they were evacuated to Japan, then sent to the United States.
Her days were filled with the horrors of war, and contemplation about life and death.
Into that darkness waltzed a dashing young pilot, a former standout shortstop for the University of North Dakota baseball team until he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1961, just as America's involvement in Vietnam was escalating.
Right away, she sensed he was a calming force in a chaotic time.
Said Kathy of meeting Harry: "Just his presence, it was so refreshing. He was so different from the atmosphere around us all the time. It was like this ray of light."
Said Harry of meeting Kathy: "It was fresh air — my goodness! Like a flower blooming."
But their meeting almost didn't happen. Two weeks before meeting his future wife, his life nearly ended.
It was May 16, 1970. He was at Phước Vĩnh Base Camp and got a call for an urgent evacuation of three injured soldiers during the brief Cambodian campaign against Viet Cong fighters.
Wisdom flew his helicopter into Cambodia for a "hoist" mission, meaning he had to hover low over the jungle as injured soldiers were lifted into the helicopter. Enemy fire pelted them.
The helicopter lifted one soldier up. Then a second. As the third soldier was being hoisted up, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the back of the chopper, severing the tail rotor.
Wisdom's helicopter crashed into the jungle. Disregarding his own safety, he began pulling the patients from the aircraft, including one soldier trapped under the downed chopper.
His team dragged the injured men away from the combustible wreckage and into a bomb crater some 150 meters away, where they were shielded from enemy fire. Another helicopter landed nearby and rescued them. All survived.
An Army narrative after the terrifying feat commended Wisdom for demonstrating "great courage and ... exceptional flying ability," thus saving not only his crew but the injured soldiers as well.
Two weeks later, Harry met Kathy. It was love at first sight. In September, they took leave together in Bangkok. There, he proposed to her over fondue. They married in Vietnam on Oct. 14, 1970, their nuptials witnessed by just the minister, one of Wisdom's pilot friends and one of Kathy's nurse friends. Kathy extended her tour for another month until her husband's tour ended, and then they honeymooned in Hawaii.
Military life was hectic. The couple moved seven times in nine years after Vietnam. Kathy stayed home to raise their children. They moved to the Twin Cities when Wisdom took a job at Fort Snelling. He retired in 1987 as a lieutenant colonel, then took a job as a senior regional sales representative for Universal Cooperatives, an Eagan-based agricultural cooperative.
Heroes of the game
When he was approached for recognition at CHS Field as part of a promotion honoring Disabled American Veterans (DAV) of Minnesota, Wisdom responded: "What about my wife? She's a veteran. She should be recognized, too. And I want to surprise her."
On April 28, Wisdom was honored by the Saints as the team's "Honored Hero of the Game." His wife stood at his side. "It's always fun to see him being honored," she said beforehand.
Then Kathy listened as the announcer called her name: "Heroine of the Game." She was shocked, and gave her husband that "what did you do?" look. Her husband was thrilled his wish had been fulfilled.
Today, the couple are retired and happy, wintering in Alabama and keeping busy with grandchildren's sporting events. Wisdom has helped raise money for veterans, launching an annual golf fundraiser for DAV and one for post-9/11 veterans.
His handshake remains firm, but his health isn't great. He's been affected by Agent Orange: high blood pressure, diabetes, thyroid cancer. He also has an incurable form of leukemia, though doctors say it's under control.
Last fall, Wisdom spent four days in the hospital with COVID. "I came home just a shell," he said. He strengthened himself by pacing the house in a walker until he felt well enough to head to Alabama for the winter.
Sitting beside Kathy, 75, Wisdom remains in awe that he found his wife amid the horrors of war. To him, it's more evidence that there is a God.
"I found out God had been with me," he said. He had survived the crash in the jungle and hundreds more missions when the death rate for pilots was so high. And Harry met Kathy.
"There was no reason I should have walked away from what happened," he said.
"From any of it."