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TODAY Show: A half-century later, a congressman visits the site of his father's fatal helicopter crash in Vietnam

Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota learned when he was 10 that his biological father had died in the Vietnam War. His death made Phillips realize "the impact of what we do" in Congress.

Photo Illustration: A collage of images including Dean Phillips and his father

WASHINGTON — In 1979, when Dean Phillips was 10 years old, his mother told him a story while driving home from hockey practice that would change him forever: His biological father, a man he had never met before, had been killed in the Vietnam War when Phillips was 6 months old.

Since that day in 1979, Phillips vowed to learn every detail he could about Army Capt. Arthur “Artie” Pfefer — and one day visit the place where his father spent his final moments.

This spring, Phillips, now a Democratic congressman from Minnesota, fulfilled that lifelong mission and embarked on a pilgrimage to Vietnam to visit Dragon Mountain, the site of the helicopter crash that killed Pfefer and seven other soldiers 54 years ago.

“It was frightening and exciting, and something I probably could have done much sooner. Maybe I didn’t have the courage at the time,” Phillips said in his first extended, televised interview about the trip.

“It had become a mission," he continued. "And when I got there, I can remember thinking, ‘This is where he took his last breath.’ And for me, it felt like a place where I could take my first.”

Arriving in Vietnam in March, Phillips drew strength from a band of traveling companions that included his close friend, the actor Woody Harrelson, who once rented Phillips’ house while shooting the movie “Wilson” in Minnesota. 

“Just to see how that impacted him, to see one of your dear friends have that kind of huge emotional catharsis was so powerful,” said Harrelson, who embraced Phillips on the mountain and wept with him. 

“'After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same,' as Paul Simon says, but I think it changed him," said Harrelson. 

Good things come in threes 

Phillips had hoped to pick up sunflowers — a symbol of peace and the 1960s era  — to take to the site, but the group was late as it rushed from the hotel to the Hanoi airport to catch a flight to central Vietnam. At a stoplight though, an old woman on a motorbike pulled alongside the group's van holding a bouquet of sunflowers. Phillips jumped out and bought them.

Just outside Pleiku on the path to Dragon Mountain, the group members, which now included Vietnamese and American officials, had no idea where the crash site was. But they bumped into a man coming down the path named Pyek Rocham, who told them he had lived on the mountain for 60 years and had scavenged the crash site for scrap metal and MREs (meals ready to eat) with his brothers in 1969. He pointed out exactly where it was, now part of a coffee plantation.

Walking to the site, they came across two red peppers on the path. They picked them up, and Phillips’ friend reminded him that pepper in German is “Pfeffer” — his father’s last name.

Sunflowers. Coffee. Peppers.

“Strange things happen in threes. And this was a perfect example,” Phillips said.

On Dragon Mountain, not far from the former U.S. Army base Camp Enari, Phillips laid down his sunflowers and buried a congressional coin in the red dirt where his father’s Huey helicopter went down those many decades ago. He bagged some of the dirt as a keepsake and bought a 50 kilogram bag of coffee beans.

“It was a beautiful sight. … It was filled with pine trees. And it felt like Minnesota, like our home, where my dad was raised, where I was raised and still make my home,” Phillips said during the interview overlooking the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. “And instead of being heavy and sad and weighty, it was just the opposite.”

Capt. Arthur Pfefer was one of more than 58,000 U.S. servicemembers who died in the Vietnam War, their names etched in the black granite memorial that offers views of the U.S. Capitol where his son now works. As many as 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed in the long, bloody war.

Phillips said he understood how fortunate he was to have taken the trip, which he funded personally, and he now wanted to help other Americans visit the places where their loved ones served and died.

Ahead of Memorial Day, Phillips teamed with Rep. Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican, and rolled out a bill, the Love Lives on Act, that would allow spouses of deceased servicemembers to keep their survivor benefits after they remarry. Phillips’ mother lost hers.

'Both loss and possibility'

DeeDee Phillips said she always thought it would be too painful to visit the Vietnam Memorial. But this month, she joined her son there for the first time, and they walked along the wall and etched the name on panel 20W: ARTHUR T PFEFER

Even though he would never meet his infant son, Pfefer had heard Phillips' voice, babbling on reel-to-reel tapes his mother and Pfefer exchanged during his deployment.

A half-century later, Phillips would hear his biological father’s voice for the first time. A few years ago, Phillips discovered the tapes, including one where Pfefer is singing a 1965 hit from The Animals that became an anthem for Vietnam war soldiers. “We gotta get out of this place …”

“I craved to hear his voice, to see video of him. My whole life I never had,” said Phillips, who quipped: “He was gonna be a better lawyer than a singer.”

DeeDee Phillips said she initially decided not to tell her son about his biological father. “It was such a tragedy and so devastating,” she said. “I just didn’t know how I would handle it.”

But friends told her it was the right thing to do, and later Phillips would get to spend time with his grandmother, Pfefer’s mother, who taught him how to play piano, made him matzah ball soup and shared photographs and stories about his dad.

Yet Phillips’ presence also reminded friends and family of Pfefer’s absence. Phillips is a spitting image of his father. His grandmother, Ruth, would cry every time she saw him, and he’s been stopped in the airport by strangers who knew his dad.

“It’s a paradox because I represent both loss and possibility,” Phillips said.

Seven other Army servicemembers lost their lives in the helicopter crash: Chief warrant officer Stewart B. Goldberg of Baltimore; Specialist 4th Class David M. Valdez of Los Angeles; Capt. Elvernon Peele of Williamston, North Carolina; Capt. Vincent F. Sabatinelli of Southbridge, Massachusettts; Sgt. 1st Class Jay L. Everett of Latrobe, Pennsylvania; Sgt. Gerald E. Du Beau of Springfield, Illinois;  and Specialist 4th Class Ronald K. Dycks of Cleveland. 

'The impact of what we do'

In 1972, DeeDee married Eddie Phillips, the son of advice columnist “Dear Abby” and heir to a wine and spirits fortune. He would take the future congressman under his wing, raise him as his son and install him as head of Phillips Distilling before the younger Phillips ran for office in 2018. 

At 54, Phillips is now more than twice as old as his father was when he died. He said learning of Pfefer’s service — and ultimate sacrifice — to his country “absolutely changed my trajectory,” hammering home that “every day is a gift.” Phillips never got a chance to meet the war's most famous prisoner of war, the late Sen. John McCain, but during a biking trip in northern Vietnam, Phillips, Harrelson and others visited the lake where McCain's plane was shot down and the "Hanoi Hilton," where McCain and other American POWs were tortured.

A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a new member of the Democratic leadership team, Phillips said he thinks about the lawmakers who served in Congress during the 1960s every time he pulls out his voting card.

“In the case of my dad, Artie, this Congress at that time afforded him the opportunity to go to college to obtain his law degree. He never would have been able to do so without the support of the federal government,” Phillips said, pointing to his father's Army ROTC scholarship. 

“And those same men in Congress … also voted to send young men to war, including my dad, and it cost him his life. … I realized the impact of what we do," he said. "It’s not trivial; it’s really meaningful.”

A half-century later, a congressman visits the site of his father's fatal helicopter crash in Vietnam
May 29, 2023 - NBC TODAY Show