LAKEWOOD RANCH — Andy Hooker wears his Vietnam Brotherhood hat tight to his head now, covering the close-cropped hair he used to wear long as a disguise to hide from war protesters.
He takes off his thick, dark sunglasses when he speaks, revealing a twinkle of hope from once-distrusting eyes.
As an 18-year-old, Hooker, the door gunner and crew chief for the 335th Assault Helicopter Company, passed through an Oakland, Calif., airport between tours of Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, and watched as red-cheeked protesters hurled expletives and spewed spit.
“That impacted me to such a point that when I went back home a second time, I didn’t wear my uniform,” Hooker said. “I wore civilian clothes. People, then, couldn’t separate politics from the men and women serving the country.”
When Hooker, a sergeant E5 Vietnam War veteran and president of the Sarasota County Veterans Council, walks Lakewood Ranch Main Street during the Tribute to Heroes Memorial Day Parade Sunday, May 26, he first will think of fallen soldiers. But, he will also recognize active troops, who will return to festive homecomings.
It’s a world made possible by the men and women in boots who came before them.
Hooker’s military time was spent on combat assault missions aboard helicopters without doors. The helicopters peppered enemies with machine gun fire and dropped rockets on Viet Cong troops.
Hooker flew — first as a door gunner, then as a crew chief — with two pilots, from Camp Bearcat, halfway between Saigon, Vietnam, and Vung Tau, Vietnam.
For Hooker, the days he spent tethered to an M-60, afraid to leave his position as guard, made him an adrenaline junky.
When Hooker enrolled at Grahm Junior College in Boston at age 23, he was in search of a career that would bring similar adventure. He got something more extreme: threats and isolation. Fellow students responded poorly to his presence; civilian society was fed up with the war and taking it out on soldiers.
“I had deep confusion at that time,” Hooker said. “You’re leaving a place that’s dangerous, and you come back to school where kids give you attitude and make you walk on the other side of the sidewalk.”
Hooker blocked out the venom as best he could, while studying media communications.
“My first reaction was to beat the crap out of (students spitting and cussing at me),” Hooker said. “You don’t know the right way to act.”
After college, Hooker gravitated toward the rush of the entertainment business. He became a production manager of a concert committee.
In a career spent in live-show production, Hooker, traveled with bands such as Aerosmith and Boston, working stage lighting and sound. He spoke about Vietnam with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, of Aerosmith, and other veterans who worked alongside him on the production crew.
Executing a rock concert gave Hooker the same adrenaline rush he experienced in war.
“My civilian job was an extension of what I was doing in war,” Hooker said. “I didn’t run into that bulls*** of a regular job. A young soldier is given a lot of power. You have to have your stuff together. I still carried that with me in entertainment.”
During a recent Sarasota County Veterans Council meeting, Hooker, now 63, met a veteran who suffered a cruel return from five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hooker reminded the veteran of what his service means now — a world where the public can separate politics from heroism and greet him with applause, not spit.
It’s a world where Hooker wears his hat comfortably.
“I’m thrilled I can walk around today, showing my colors, without people cranking on me,” Hooker said. “People thank me for my service. That’s a good feeling.”
Contact Josh Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PAY IT FORWARD
MOTS DONATION DROP-OFFS
East County residents can drop off items to send to troops overseas at the following locations: Ed’s Tavern, the Fish Hole and Starbucks, all on Lakewood Ranch Main Street; Lakewood Ranch Community Activities, 6310 Lakewood Ranch Blvd.; Town Hall, 8175 Lakewood Ranch Blvd.; The Lake Club, 15804 Clearlake Ave; Keiser University-Saraota, 6151 Lake Osprey Drive; J2 IT Services, 8519 E. State Road 70; and MOTS, 4301 32nd St. W., Bradenton.
Suggested items include: Beef jerky, socks, Clif bars, toothbrushes, Twizzlers, wet wipes and more. Donations will be accepted on site during the Tribute to Heroes Mermorial Day Parade Sunday, May 26, at Lakewood Ranch Main Street.
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