Local veteran has returned to Vietnam nearly 20 times to help humanitarian efforts

Local veteran has returned to Vietnam nearly 20 times to help humanitarian efforts

November 4th, 2018 by Mark Pace in Local Regional News

In a reflection on a shadowbox containing his medals and ribbons, Roger Helle talks about his service in the Vietnam War at his home Friday, October 12, 2018 in Ringgold, Ga. Helle was in the United States Marine Corps and suffered life-threatening injuries during his third tour.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

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Name: Roger Helle

Age: 71

Branch of military: U.S. Marines

Years of service: 1965-1971

Roger Helle knew he needed to go back.

He had left Vietnam 15 years prior for what he thought was the last time, battered and broken. The U.S. Marine sergeant had watched as nearly his entire platoon was killed ahead of him. Later, he was injured after a grenade exploded yards away, filling him with shrapnel.

Helle underwent 26 operations in nine months. At one point, he heard a doctor tell his identical twin brother — who is also a decorated veteran once recommended for the Medal of Honor — he would die. He prayed that night despite not being a religious man at the time. He asked God to save him.

Helle lived.

He turned to alcohol to help cope with survivor's guilt, but the worst were the nightmares.

"I relived Vietnam every single night," the 71-year-old said.

They continued for almost five years.

However, despite his experiences, he needed to go back to the country that still housed many of the people who had tried to kill him. His life had changed, and he wanted to assist the place he had helped destroy.

When Helle was at his worst, his wife had advice: "Put God first in your life."

So he did. He and his wife, Shirley, prayed that night in late 1974. He dedicated his life to the Lord.

"There was no heavenly chorus, no hallelujah but that was the first night the nightmares had stopped," he said. "And I stopped drinking overnight."

The rest of his life would be dedicated to serving. He worked in Nebraska as the district manager for a security company, but his passion was the coffee shop ministry he and his wife volunteered with to help kids.

After three years of volunteering, the couple decided to dedicate their lives to ministry. He joined Teen Challenge — a network of Christian organizations intended to help teenagers and adults with problems such as substance abuse or self-destructive behavior.

The decision eventually led them to Chattanooga, where he became the executive director of the local Teen Challenge organization.

He had talked to his wife about returning to Vietnam ever since he became a Christian, so in 1989, he did just that.

"I had an emotional healing," he said. "You couldn't grieve there at the time [of the war]. Just the guilt. At that time, I didn't know I'd be going back to the place."

He's now been 19 times in the last 29 years.

Helle uses the experience he's gained in more than 40 years of nonprofit work. He helps arrange medical work and educational opportunities, and he interacts with government officials. He's not allowed to evangelize but does say the topic comes up regularly. When asked, he's not shy about answering their questions.

Many of the men he interacts with were part of the Vietcong army that tried to kill him. Each trip consists of a reconciliation dinner where volunteers meet with former Vietcong soldiers and other Vietnam residents to ask for advice and share war stories.

"For a lot of them, what they ended up with was not what they thought they would get," he said.

Helle retired from his work with Teen Challenge last year and now serves as an independent adviser to help nonprofits that are struggling or trying to get started.

As Helle's career comes to a close, he plans to make one more trip.

"It's a whole different perspective going back," he said. "Going back and talking to the people we fought against. That gives you a whole other perspective."

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.