Al Sever is a man passionate about life and death because he has experienced both in dramatic ways.
Sever, of Loyalsock Township, was an eager 18 year old in 1966. He enlisted in the U.S. Army just eight days after graduating from high school in his hometown of St. Clair, Schuylkill County,
"I wanted to experience adventure in capital letters. I wanted to experience war and helicopters," he said.
By April, 1968, Sever was doing just that. He had been trained in helicopter mechanics and then sent to Vietnam, where he was assigned to the 116th Assault Helicopter Co. supporting the 25th Infantry Division. There, Sever saw the brutality of war first-hand. Twenty-five percent of all the casualties of the Vietnam War occurred during 1968-69 and many were Sever's fellow soldiers.
"I saw people die three or four days a week. I had a bad attitude about life and death. Although I was raised a Catholic I felt it (life) was worthless," he said. Sever served on slicks, which were helicopters that carried troops in and out of battle zones. Soon, he was assigned to a Huey gunship with the radio call sign of Stinger 440.
When Sever returned to civilian life after his initial year in Vietnam he could not adjust. Although he took a job in a factory his heart and mind were with the soldiers still fighting. In May, 1970, American troops invaded Cambodia.
"I saw the 116th helicopters in action on the news. The slicks were landing under heavy fire and the Stinger gunships roared through the tree tops firing rockets into the North Vietnam Army positions," Sever said.
The next day he was at the local Army recruiter's office to re-enlist and a week later he was back in Vietnam. However, he was older and wiser than he'd been two years before.
"I was not the young kid who had stepped off the plane in 1968, but an old man of 22. I had returned without any delusions of grandeur. Coming back to complete an unfinished education I knew my soul would be the chalkboard on which lessons would be written. Terror and brutality would be the chalk," he said. Sever felt he had to learn these lessons and that his "final grade" would depend on knowing them.
Vinh Long, in the heart of the Mekong Delta, was his home for the next year while he was assigned to C Troop, 7th Squadron, 1st Cavalry, which was known as the "Blackhawks" and consisted of five air cavalry troops. Having already served a tour of duty he was considered one of the more experienced soldiers. As a lift platoon sergeant he would fly in the slicks that carried infantry troops to landing zones.
"I had no idea that for the next year I would shuffle more dead men than paper. Riding the slicks of C Troop would break my heart, scar my soul and open my mind," he said.
Just four months into his second tour, Sever experienced something that would change his perspective on death forever. On Sept. 10, 1970, at daybreak, three slicks from C Troop landed in a flooded rice paddy near Tan Tri to pick up an American infantry patrol. Sever, part of the helicopter's four-man crew, quickly assisted half a dozen tired, cold and wet infantrymen into the ship. The helicopter lifted off and had traveled only a few hundred meters when its nose dipped down and the rear lifted skyward. Sever watched the rotor blades chew into the water of the rice paddy, disintegrate into pieces and the helicopter begin to turn upside down.
"I knew we were doomed. I purposely unhooked my seat belt and I was thrown out of the ship on impact."
It was at that moment when Sever's unfinished education took a baffling turn. He recounted the experience in a book he wrote in 2002 about his battlefield experiences:
"It was pitch black for only an instant, and then suddenly I could see a soft diffused light, a delicate glow that appeared to be far ahead of me at the end of a passageway. I knew immediately what had happened; I was dead, killed in the crash. I was bodiless, a thinking, wide-awake awareness. A spirit? Possibly, but I don't know. What does a spirit feel like? This experience was definitely not a subconscious dream. I had never before, or since, experienced anything so absolutely real. Life may be an illusion, but this was real.
"I somehow knew that I must make my way toward the source of light way off in the distance and started toward the soft, gentle glow. I didn't walk, but I didn't fly either. My mind ,or being, moved toward the light with no exertion or any sense of actual body movement. I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of contentment and gentle warmth. I experienced no fear or anxiety, but rather a feeling of "welcome home. It felt like I'd been there before and liked it.
"As I approached the light, I could sense that once I came to the tunnel's end and made the turn to the right, I would be in the presence of multiple beings. I don't know why, but I knew for certain that there was more than one being around the right turn."
Sever was sure he was going to learn something, to be given knowledge and what he did not understand soon would be revealed to him. He felt he understood that humans went out of their way to make everything difficult when life could be easy.
"I was moving toward the light, eager to make the turn to the right, when suddenly I hesitated, knowing, or perhaps informed, that once around the turn, I would be questioned and would be held accountable. By accountable, I mean I would be held responsible for everything I had ever done in my life. This accountability, however, was not going to be a judgment. I felt no threat; it was not a Heaven-or-Hell situation. Rather, I would be expected to have my life reviewed like an ongoing progress report. I knew one question was going to be, "Had I improved?" My past actions and inactions were going to be
weighed by the group. I knew or could sense that my actions, with or toward other people, were high on the priority list. All of our lives are intermingled for a reason. We interact with each other and our lives are mixed for a purpose. We learn from each other and rise higher by helping others. I knew that there was indeed a universal moral code. Don't abandon your wounded and don't forget your friends, would have been how I would explain it in the words of a soldier. But it was much more than that. There had been no rights while living, only obligations and responsibilities," he said.
Sensing that he could have done better, he approached the end of the passageway with mixed emotions.
"There was no fear, but rather hesitation. I wanted to become part of the group and share their knowledge; but on the other hand I felt unsure of my accountability. I knew I could have accomplished many things much better while alive," he said.
He realized he didn't have to proceed. "It was my choice; accountability and knowledge, or go back." He hesitated and thought, "I want to go back and try to do better."
In that instant, Sever found himself swimming in the rice paddy, weighted down by heavy chest armor. The helicopter was upside-down and stunned infantrymen, who had been thrown from the ship, were struggling in the deep water. The four crew members and six infantrymen were shaken, but alive.
Sever did not talk about his life-after-death experience to his fellow crew members but he believes that others felt a spiritual impact, as well as a physical one in the crash. The pilot of the ship later told Sever he felt he'd lived every single second of his life again, from being born to when the crew cut him out of his seat belt after the crash. As for the aircraft's commander, Sever said he quit flying after the incident.
The fact that the accident happened during the wet season also was a saving grace. Had it crashed during the dry season when the rice paddy's dirt was baked to the hardness of concrete, Sever is sure there would have been an explosion on impact killing everyone on board.
He saw heavy action during the rest of his tour of duty and at one point found himself in the middle of a mine field. He credits the life-after-death experience with giving him the courage to turn around in the minefield in the Mekong Delta and walk through it to safety.
"I'm not sure if I would have made that walk if I expected to set off a mine, but having already died, I was not worried. I do think that eventually something may occur in my life that will prove I returned to the living for a purpose. Maybe it has already occurred and I don't know what it was," he said.
Sever served six years in the Army. Thirty-one months of that time were in Vietnam with incursions into Cambodia and Laos. Of the 16 "campaigns" in Vietnam, he served in 11 of them. According to Sever, no American troops "officially" were stationed in either Cambodia or Laos, although hundreds died in those countries.
Following his military service, Sever returned home, earned a degree as a civil engineer and worked for the state Department of Environmental Protection for 30 years. Since his retirement in 2008, he has pursued a life of travel and discovery. He bicycled the Road of Death in Bolivia, and visited Peru and Mexico. In 2002, his soldier's memoir "Xin Loi, Viet Nam, Thirty-one Months of War" was published by Random House. He currently is planning to walk the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage that stretches from St. Jean-Pied-du Port, near Biarritz, France, to Santiago, Spain. It was made famous in the movie, "The Way."
While visiting Mexico he was struck by the way funerals are conducted there.
"You see crowds walking to the local Catholic church following the casket. A band follows the crowd playing cheerful music. After church services, the band then leads the way to the cemetery, as it is supposed to be a good thing the person has gone to a better place. He is mystified why some denominations are against using celebration as a means of honoring someone moving on to Heaven.
Although he affiliates himself with no specific faith or religious group, Sever is sure that death is just a passageway to another realm of existence. He said, "I believe there are a lot of similar stories out there but people are afraid to talk about them."
Sever continues to examine what the life-after-death experience taught him while remaining confident of what lies at the end of the journey. "I'm not afraid. I've been there and can't wait to do it again."