I’ve been a storyteller my entire career. In the corporate world, many of these stories revolve around how technology is improving business performance and driving revenue. But in December 2017, a story fell on my desk that was far beyond one I have ever told before. It wasn’t a story about business. It was a story about life, and how a man named Jim McLaughlin is using his topographic acumen to change the lives of others.
Jim is a California native who grew up on his family’s mixed crop-livestock farm. Like many young men in the mid 60’s, Jim joined the army to fly helicopters and was sent to fight in the Vietnam War. He served six years in the Army, two tours in Vietnam, including 26 months in Germany. During his first tour in Vietnam he was shot down on Hill 875 during the November 1967 Battle for Dak To.
Jim McLaughlin on Hill 875 where a total of six aircraft, including his own, was shot down on Nov. 19th and 20th 1967. This picture was taken on March 4, 2017.
When he returned to the States, Jim never forgot his experiences in Vietnam and the soldiers who never returned home. But it wasn’t until years later that Jim would find a way to help give back to the families of fallen soldiers.
It all began when he went back to his roots in agriculture. He took on an assignment for the California Department of Agriculture where he learned to use mapping software Mapinfo Pro to map pesticide treatment areas for crops that are affected annually by a plant virus. Later, using GPS he developed maps with this information to identify areas that were untreated so that helicopter and fixed wing pilots could more easily treat these places using maps uploaded to their heads-up display.
Through Jim’s work with the State Agriculture Department, he became a self-educated cartographer, and wanted to use his topography skills to help others, particularly Vietnam vets and their families. Working with the Department of Defense, the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, and the Vietnam Helicopter Flight Crew Network, Jim began creating maps of the Vietnam battle zones, and identifying exact points where aircraft were shot down. By mapping where aircraft had been brought down, Jim could then identify precise locations where death had likely occurred. He has also taken on the task of mapping all the KIA’s (Killed in Action) from the Vietnam War.
Vietnam KIA Map developed using MapInfo Pro
Each year, the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association meets for a week-long reunion, catching up with comrades and remembering the ones they lost. Jim uses this venue as an opportunity to also meet with the families of fallen soldiers, and he creates maps that can help them visualize where their loved one died. In fact, he creates four maps that he gives to the families on a CD, so they will have a complete vantage point of the area from both an aerial view, to an on-land view.
One family was so moved by finally knowing the exact location of death that they even went back to the site in Vietnam and held a memorial service for their family member.
“I do this because it’s my way of giving back to men who couldn’t do it. It’s part of that bond we have that’s unspoken. It’s a mission I’m on that I’ll do the rest of my life or as long as I’m able to,” Jim told me.
Samples of four maps Jim developed for the Gold Star Family of David Kink. Jim supplies families with multiple maps so they can orient themselves to some known city or landmark.
Through his efforts, Jim has been able to go beyond just giving families maps. He’s also been able to connect them with other families who’ve lost loved ones during the same battle, and with living soldiers in the same platoon who can tell these families details about the battle. The maps have morphed into a type of therapy that has brought healing to both the families and the soldiers who watched their comrades die beside them.
In one instance, a family had reached out to Jim about a family member who had drowned in Vietnam, but no location had been given to them. For decades the family had sought answers as to where and how the tragedy occurred. Through his research, Jim was able to find living members from the platoon of the deceased soldier, and learned that the solider was actually one of five soldiers who had perished when the boat they were in swamped while crossing the Saigon River. Jim was able to connect this family with other families of fallen soldiers, as well as their living comrades, and help them to find peace and comfort knowing where the family member had died, and knowing that they weren’t alone in their grief.
The popularity of Jim’s work has even led him to participate in a recovery project with the Department of Defense. Recently, Jim was asked by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to go back to the location in Vietnam where his helicopter was shot down 50 years ago on Hill 875. Jim’s work shows 127 men died on the Hill, three are unaccounted for. With Mapinfo Pro, Jim mapped the battle prior to going back to the site; the map was used on site to find the search starting point and help define the battlefield.
Map of the route Jim took from Da Nang South to Hill 875. During Vietnam, this route was only a dirt track.
When Jim returned to the site, he found that what was once a jungle is now being farmed and cleared of all trees. Without the maps, Jim says he would’ve never been able to create a visual to help him find locations. The remains of the three men who were not recovered 50 years ago were not found on this mission, but many items that were recovered indicate they were in the right location. When he left the former battleground, Jim had helped define the battlefield for future recovery efforts.
At Pitney Bowes, we often talk about Mapinfo Pro for its ability to show relationships that may have not previously been apparent. Jim’s story goes far beyond relationships on a map. Through his work, Jim has created relationships that have helped the living, the deceased, and their families heal. He’s brought forward relationships that have changed lives.
On behalf of Pitney Bowes, we’d like to thank all our veterans for your service and for giving back to others. And to Jim, for letting us tell your story and the story of those who will never be able to.
If you are an American vet, or if you have lost a loved one in battle, please consider contacting Jim to see how he can help you. You can also visit the Vietnam Helicopter Flight Crew Network to learn how you can become part of the veteran community.