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Vietnam vet's survivors bring him to helicopter he flew in '72

In a way, Capt. Michael E. Neufeld was reunited with the aircraft he was nearly killed in more than 45 years ago.

The Vietnam War helicopter pilot was shot down Jan. 19, 1972 and survived a violent landing in a rice paddy.

Neufeld died in 2011 at age 64 from the effects of Agent Orange exposure.

But his family brought Neufeld's ashes Thursday from Kansas to Tonawanda, where his oldest son climbed a ladder and brought them up to the cockpit of the AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter that now serves as the centerpiece of a war memorial in the city's Veterans Park.

"He was such an influence on all of us," said Joshua N. Neufeld, 33, of Little River, Kan. "He was such a magical dude. He sort of had this mystical quality. I hated bringing my friends over because he could look you in the eye and he would just see right through you."

Capt. Michael Neufeld stands in front of a Cobra attack helicopter on Jan. 20, 1972 at an Army base in Phu Bai, Vietnam. A day earlier, Neufeld was shot down while flying the helicopter and survived. The helicopter is the centerpiece of a new Vietnam veterans memorial in Tonawanda. (Photo courtesy of Jimmie D. Ferguson.)

Neufeld grew up in Kansas, the son of German Mennonite farmers, and rode a horse to school. He enlisted in the Army and served three tours in Vietnam.

It was on the third tour that he and his copilot, Jimmie D. Ferguson, were shot down outside the Phu Bai airport. Ferguson, who attended the Tonawanda memorial dedication in November, recounted that story last year in The Buffalo News.

From Vietnam to Tonawanda: War helicopter becomes a monument

The Neufelds' visit comes just weeks after "The Vietnam War," a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, premiered on PBS and renewed interest in the war, which became known as "the first helicopter war."

Neufeld's family, however, was less interested in revisiting the events of the day the helicopter was shot down than in sharing remembrances of the man they described as smart, eccentric and brave.

"I miss him," said his sister, Mary. "Mike was really a cool guy. He was just the most interesting. Then he'd get a little drunk and talk too much. He'd feel bad then go fast for four days on the farm and not talk to anybody."

After Michael Neufeld's ashes were laid to rest in the cockpit of his old helicopter, his sister Mary Neufield hugs his daughter, Brook Neufield, at Veterans Park in the City of Tonawanda, on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

After becoming disillusioned with the war and purposefully breaking his arm to get out, Neufeld developed an interest in herbalism, Native American culture, and natural homeopathic remedies for illness.

"His mistrust of the government through the war led him to seek to find his own solutions to problems without believing in mainstream solutions," said his son.

Still, he could be troubled and complicated. He divorced two women twice each. He experienced the highs and lows of manic depression and recurring nightmares, relatives said.

"It took so long for the Veterans Administration to actually help him," Josh Neufeld said of his father's full disability benefits.

Now, Neufeld's family believes their pilgrimage to the helicopter memorial will help bring him peace.

"We've been looking forward to it for a long time but it's really awesome, better than I expected," said his daughter, Brook, after the quiet late morning gathering of about 17 family members and members of the local Vietnam veterans chapter. "I just think of him, everything he ever taught me, his love and guidance, going over to Vietnam for his country."

"He should've lived longer," she added.

Mike Walker, president of Chapter 77, Vietnam Veterans of America, said he was proud to have the Neufelds visit the organization's memorial.

"It was a great feeling. I don't know if I can express it," he said. "I hope (Neufeld) would be flattered by it."

Members of Chapter 77 of the Vietnam Veterans of America watch as pilot Michael Neufeld's ashes are placed in a helicopter he flew during the Vietenam War, on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017 at Veterans Park in the City of Tonawanda. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

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