South Texas Heroes: O.J. Hale

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He is one of the most well known investigators in Laredo, so much so that the new Laredo crime lab for the Texas Department of Public Safety was actually named after him. But O.J. Hale also served his country in the military. Hale has worked for decades as an investigator for the District Attorney's office. But in the late 1960s he served his country in a different way, flying helicopter missions in the skies over Vietnam.

You'll find many Vietnam documentaries in O.J. Hale's collection. But he was shocked when he was watching his most recent addition and saw himself. He flew in a group of army gunships called the Jokers, with each helicopter bearing the Joker's face. Hale was a crew chief and he handled artillery shooting at the enemy through the open helicopter door with a cavalcade of weapons.

"When I was in the air I was a machine gunner on the left side, hand held machine gun," he said, "we had rockets, napalm, all kinds of stuff and we would eliminate all danger."

He was drafted into the Army in 1965 and reported for duty on December 22, 1965, 20 years after his father served.

After completing training he was sent to Vietnam in June 1966. From day one he was in the air on missions to eliminate enemy threats. He flew every day he was there logging hundreds of hours of flying time and seeing combat daily. And he crash landed twice.

"They had knocked out our transmission which is the main thing, you know," Hale said.

When they came down the blades were locked but the momentum kept the entire helicopter spinning.

"Everything spins like that, just the whole chopper," he told us.

And another crash when a back propeller was blown off and the helicopter plowed into a rice patty.

"We had never done a landing like that, 30 knots and we don't have wheels, we just have skids," he said, "as soon as this hits you don't skid that long because one you hit you're sunk ."

He wasn't seriously injured in those crashes but he saw many others lost. He'll never forget seeing a crew of his friends crash into the water right in front of him.

"I ran toward it trying to get my friends and I got within 20 or 30 yards and it was so hot, it just melted," he said. "The next morning we had the service on the beach and the rifles with the helmets in the ground, and they played taps and I still feel it. Every time I hear taps, it hurts me."

Hale was exposed to agent orange and suffers from health problems today, taking at least a dozen types of medication. When he returned from overseas and left the military it was a difficult adjustment back to civilian life. "You're there one day hunting to kill, and then you're here the next day and everything's calm," he said.

So he chose to pursue a high intensity career in law enforcement, first as a police officer, then detective, then an investigator for the district attorney's office. He's been in the field 48 years.

"That kept me going," he said.

And he was honored to have the new Texas DPS crime lab named after him. He said, "it's a great honor and it's something that hits the heart."

Hale is humble about his service and rarely talks about it. But he is thankful to have been able to serve his country in so many ways.

"I don't consider myself a hero, but a patriot I am," he said.

And his community is thankful for his service both here and overseas.

Hale won many awards including 16 air medals each representing 25 hours of flying time. He is also the father of State District Judge O.J. Hale, Jr.