DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alum captures military experiences in memoir

David Ballentine

Alum David Ballentine piloted a helicopter in Vietnam from 1966-1967.

David Ballentine has many titles: PhD, DU alum, college instructor, Marine. But the one whose significance he finds increases with age is the designation Vietnam combat veteran.

“I think the older a person gets, the larger looms the experience of war in his life,” Ballentine says. “When I got back, I didn’t think of it as that big an experience, but as I’ve gotten older I regard it as hugely significant to my life.”

Ballentine (PhD ’79) recently put his Vietnam experience into a memoir, Gunbird Driver: A Marine Huey Pilot’s War in Vietnam. The book was an outgrowth of Ballentine’s original intention: to document his experiences to share with future generations of his family.

“My initial thought was to write 60 or 80 pages, and that became 300 and 400 pages,” he says.

Gunbird Driver details Ballentine’s time piloting an armed UH-1E, or Huey, which was equipped with rocket pods and machine guns. As Ballentine puts it, anyone who has seen a Vietnam movie is likely familiar with the Huey helicopter.

The memoir outlines Ballentine’s tour as pilot of the Huey from 1966–67. During his time, he performed duties from supply drops and evacuating the wounded to trading fire with the Viet Cong and transporting Miss World to the Bob Hope Christmas special.

He also was shot down.

“I spent 13 months applying the skills Uncle Sam provided me to Southeast Asia,” Ballentine says. “I wasn’t hurt, and no one in my helicopter was hurt, which is unusual. In that respect, we were lucky.”

Ballentine eventually secured a publisher in the Naval Institute Press. One of his chief difficulties came from editors who deemed the material on the blue side.

Ballentine had read other war memoirs, which focused solely on combat. In an attempt to add “you-are-there” flavor, Ballentine delves into details that involve rats, makeshift bathrooms and the lingo of young soldiers.

“This is not an academic treatise,” Ballentine says. “The language is rough; it’s full of words I don’t use anymore. One editor criticized me in saying, ‘It’s too rough.’ But he wasn’t there with us.”

After Vietnam, Ballentine spent the rest of the 1970s in many places doing many things. He married and ended up operating a warehouse forklift while working on his DU PhD, which is in history with an emphasis on medieval Europe.

“The idea of being a university professor was seductive. I’ve always venerated people with education,” Ballentine says. “Unfortunately, I could have papered my house with letters (from potential colleges) that said, ‘Your credentials are appealing, but we’re going with another candidate.’”

With a pregnant wife at home, he went back to work for the Marines until 1989. His skill set was not wasted, however. Ballentine became known as the go-to guy for using the written word to defend positions. He even did some ghost-writing for the commandant.

“I didn’t use my degree directly, but I kept my boss happy for 15 years,” he says. “You can’t help but come away from a doctoral program with a confidence in words.”

Ballentine currently teaches part time at Johnson County Community College in Kansas. Most recently, he taught a Western civilization class that focused on theologians and philosophers.

Ballentine’s memoir, Gunbird Driver: A Marine Huey Pilot’s War in Vietnam, is available from Amazon.com or from the Naval Institute Press.

Comments are closed.