Local man who ran into burning helicopter in Vietnam War honored with street name

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Jim Skaggs placed flowers on the grave of Sgt. Gary McKiddy at Highland Memorial Cemetery in Miamisburg for the last 50 years after McKiddy saved him in Vietnam

A Miamisburg man who died during the Vietnam War will be forever memorialized on a stretch of road that winds past his final resting place.

Sgt. Gary McKiddy was a member of the 1st Squadron, 9th Calvary Regiment, 1st Calvary Division, when he was killed in action May 6, 1970, at age 20 in Cambodia, after pulling fellow soldier Specialist Four Jim Skaggs from a burning helicopter.

“Gary and I met in Vietnam and instantly became best friends,” said Skaggs, who gathered with Miamisburg officials and McKiddy’s family at Highland Memorial Cemetery Friday, the 52nd anniversary of his death. “I never flew with anybody as my crew chief except Gary. We always chose to fly together.”

Skaggs said McKiddy was “an All-American boy, always had a smile on his face.”

“He was a very outgoing, charismatic-type personality,” he said. “Always was trying to make people laugh and enjoy life and it was a great loss when he died.”

That happened just days after President Nixon ordered U.S. troops into Cambodia. McKiddy, who served as a door gunner, was in a helicopter with his crew — Skaggs and 22-year-old pilot Warrant Officer 1 Tommy Whiddon — when it came under intense enemy fire, and was shot down

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The helicopter’s rotors seized and the aircraft plummeted from the sky. McKiddy was either thrown or jumped free of the crash upon impact with the ground.

But instead of opting for self-preservation, he immediately rushed into the flames to rescue Skaggs, who was trapped in the front seat.

“We were burning and I had numerous broken bones,” Skaggs said. “He got me out, (dragged) me away, came back for the pilot, (but) it blew up and killed them both.”

In 1999, when the First Air Cavalry Division dedicated a barracks at Fort Hood, Texas, in honor of McKiddy, helicopter pilot Walker Jones told those assembled, including McKiddy’s parents and brothers Ron and Rick and dozens of soldiers who had served in the Vietnam War, that he cruised to the crash site but had to pull up.

“The ammo inside the helicopter was cooking off and shooting out like bottle rockets,” said Rick McKiddy. “He told my mom and dad, he was ... crying when he was telling them, he said “If you want to know what your son did, when you get home, put a box of bottle rockets on a fire in the backyard and as they start shooting off, run into that fire and stand there for about 10 (to) 15 seconds while you’re getting Jim Skaggs out and carry him, and then run back in a second time.’ And he said, the difference was it wasn’t bottle rockets, it was live ammo.”

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Jim Skaggs stands near the grave of Sgt. Gary McKiddy at Highland Memorial Cemetery in Miamisburg. Both men served together in Vietnam. McKiddy rescued Skaggs from a burning helicopter and died when the helicopter exploded. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Jim Skaggs stands near the grave of Sgt. Gary McKiddy at Highland Memorial Cemetery in Miamisburg. Both men served together in Vietnam. McKiddy rescued Skaggs from a burning helicopter and died when the helicopter exploded.  JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

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Jim Skaggs stands near the grave of Sgt. Gary McKiddy at Highland Memorial Cemetery in Miamisburg. Both men served together in Vietnam. McKiddy rescued Skaggs from a burning helicopter and died when the helicopter exploded. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Making matters worse the helicopter was reportedly glowing white from the intensity of the flames, Jones told the family.

“He said Gary knew he was putting it all on the line,” Rick McKiddy said, his voice choking with emotion.

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McKiddy was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star Medal, the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Good Conduct Medal for his actions that day. The family continues to lobby for McKiddy to receive the Medal of Honor, the highest honor possible, which has been denied by Washington lawmakers for decades despite Skaggs’ first-hand account.

Rick McKiddy said he met with State. Sen. Niraj Antani about introducing legislation to have the roadway named after his brother, something Antani did last year with Senate Bill 91, which upon its approval became House Bill 291, designating multiple memorial highways and memorial bridges. It officially named Ohio 725 between South Union Road and Soldier Home Road in Montgomery County as “the Sgt. Gary Lee McKiddy Memorial Highway.”

“Sgt. Gary Lee McKiddy demonstrated tremendous courage and great sacrifice for this county and fellow soldiers,” Antani said during sponsor testimony for the bill. “Designating this highway in his honor is a small way to thank him and honor his legacy forever.”

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Sgt. Gary McKiddy was killed in Vietnam while trying to rescue soldiers from a burning helicopter. McKiddy has received the medal of honor for his bravery. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Sgt. Gary McKiddy was killed in Vietnam while trying to rescue soldiers from a burning helicopter. McKiddy has received the medal of honor for his bravery. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

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Sgt. Gary McKiddy was killed in Vietnam while trying to rescue soldiers from a burning helicopter. McKiddy has received the medal of honor for his bravery. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Rick McKiddy said State Rep. Tom Young (R-Washington Twp.) later helped push the legislation through the Ohio House of Representatives. He also credits Miamisburg Mayor Michelle Collins for “constantly being on the phone” trying to nudge the bill closer to being approved.

He said the naming of the highway after his brother brings the McKiddy family “closer to closure.”

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McKiddy, a 1968 Miamisburg High School graduate, volunteered for the the U.S. Army in 1969 when he was 19 and specifically requested that he join U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. He flew more than 650 combat missions and was awarded 37 medals, including four bronze stars with Oak Leaf Cluster for heroism, 27 Air Medals with the V device, the Army Commendation Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Aircraft Crewman Badge and the Marksman Badge for his many heroic actions.

“There’s a sense of pride that he’s getting the recognition he deserves as a true American hero,” Rick McKiddy said as he stood at his brother’s grave. “There’s a sense of closure knowing that his legacy will be talked about for as long as that sign exists. People will be looking it up and they’ll get to see exactly what Gary has done.”

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Jim Skaggs places flowers on the grave of Sgt. Gary McKiddy at Highland Memorial Cemetery in Miamisburg. Both men served together in Vietnam. McKiddy rescued Skaggs from a burning helicopter and died when the helicopter exploded. The man on the left is McKiddy brother Rick McKiddy on the left. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Jim Skaggs places flowers on the grave of Sgt. Gary McKiddy at Highland Memorial Cemetery in Miamisburg. Both men served together in Vietnam. McKiddy rescued Skaggs from a burning helicopter and died when the helicopter exploded. The man on the left is McKiddy brother Rick McKiddy on the left. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Combined ShapeCaption
Jim Skaggs places flowers on the grave of Sgt. Gary McKiddy at Highland Memorial Cemetery in Miamisburg. Both men served together in Vietnam. McKiddy rescued Skaggs from a burning helicopter and died when the helicopter exploded. The man on the left is McKiddy brother Rick McKiddy on the left. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

“It also says that our elected officials have not forgotten those that sacrificed and gave all. They all say it, they all say ‘We honor our military and our soldiers,’ but this action proves they mean it.”

Skaggs said he was “very moved” by the fact that officials were able to memorialize his best friend.

“I’m so happy that this legislation has passed and that we’re able to get this section of highway named after Gary,” Skaggs said.

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