Dennis Helsel was born in 1947. His father was a career Soldier who served in World War II, Korea, and twice in Vietnam, retiring as a CW3 (Chief Warrant Officer 3). While Dennis moved with his parents to different Army posts, every two years he returned to Bellwood, Pennsylvania, to live with his maternal grandparents and develop roots. Dennis credits his father with teaching him about NCOs and telling the straight truth. He grew up hunting and fishing, and enjoyed fellowship in the Church of the Brethren, which he describes as a “conscientious objector church.” Dennis chose to attend West Point because he was proud of his father and wanted to do something for his country. He recalls the terror of R-Day, stating, “I wasn’t mentally prepared.” When he called his mom during Beast and said he didn’t know if he could take it, she remarked, “If you come home, you’d better find someplace to live, because you can’t stay with us.” By his Buckner summer, he described the training as phenomenal and he loved the time with his classmates. During Cow Year, he traveled to Ft. Ord, California, to serve as a Drill Cadet in a Basic Training Company. Firstie year, he traveled to a variety of posts to learn about the different Army branches, and he spent a week working as a church camp counselor. During the summer between Plebe and Yearling year he met his wife, Sue. He did well academically and graduated 66th in his class. He remembers that most of his instructors had at least one tour in Vietnam and frequently discussed training and techniques with their classes. He remembers the challenge of some of the physical education courses and discusses some of the legendary instructors like Herb Kroeten, Joe Palone, and LeRoy Alitz. He taught Sunday School and sang with the Protestant Chapel Choir and Glee Club. He was a manager for the baseball team and played sprint (150s) football his Cow and Firstie year, both for Coach Eric Tipton (after breaking his neck playing football at Ursinus College the year before West Point). He describes COL Red Reeder traveling with the baseball team and telling “war stories.” He branched Military Intelligence (one of 13 slots for his class), but spent his first two years in the Armor branch. Even though he promised his future in-laws that he would wait until he returned from Vietnam to marry their daughter, he felt that he could not live without Sue, and they were married on Memorial Day (May 30) 1970, about two months before he deployed. Prior to going to Vietnam, he completed Airborne and Ranger school, where he “found out who [he] was.” He arrived in Vietnam on August 5, 1970 and was assigned to 1/1 Cavalry and later the 635th Military Intelligence Company in the 23rd Infantry Division (Americal). He was demoralized when he learned that, instead of going to the 173rd Airborne, he was assigned to the Division that Calley had been in (My Lai Massacre). He also realized that he was being diverted to the 23rd because they had suffered a lot of casualties. When he arrived at the unit, his first interaction with his Soldiers left him feeling threatened, but after closer analysis, he realized that they were desperate for good leadership. He discusses several missions he participated in, including Lam Son 719, working with Kit Carson scouts, and being wounded twice. When he returned to the United States, he was called a baby killer and was spat upon. When he returned from Vietnam, he commanded D Company at the Army Security Agency at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts, from 1971 to 1973, followed by attending the Defense Intelligence School. He was in grad school in 1975 when Vietnam fell, and he felt betrayed. In 1976, he earned a master’s degree in math from Penn State University before returning to West Point to teach in the Math Department from 1976 to 1980, a move that ultimately changed the trajectory of his life. As an instructor, he became the “Father of Rock Math,” and traveled to USNA and USAFA to learn how they taught their lower-level math sections. One summer he served as a Tac at Camp Buckner to prove to himself whether his pre-conceived notions about women at the Military Academy were correct. He discovered that the women overcompensated because they thought they had to be better than the men. For example, his company First Sergeant completed every single march even though she was recovering from knee surgery. Starting in 1978, he served as the head women’s softball coach until 1980. This was his first experience coaching women, and both he and his players had to learn how to interact with each other. In some cases, his players felt that they were heard more when they spoke to Sue first. Sometimes, he was able to positively intervene with Academy officials to make changes for the better for the women in the Corps, based on what he was hearing from his players. He realized that the women at West Point were fighting three battles, first against the male Cadets who did not want them in the Corps, second against Cadets who treated them like sisters and not peers, and finally against some of the Officers at the Academy who wanted them to leave. In 1980, he transitioned to the Army Reserve (eventually retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1996) to become the head softball coach (first male head coach) at Penn State. There, he found that his players had more talent, but his players at Army left everything on the field. In 1982, he earned a master’s degree in sports management, and in 1983 he began a career in athletic administration that took him to Old Dominion University, Syracuse University, the University of Akron, and the University of Maryland. In 2004 he became involved with Team Focus, a faith-based organization that mentors fatherless boys and provides strong male role models. In 2006, he joined Chowan University as the Athletic Director and is now the Director of Athletics Emeritus. In 2019 he was inducted into Chowan University’s Sports Hall of Fame. In addition, he has served as the President of the West Point Society of Central Pennsylvania, a Regional West Point Society Advisor, and as a Lay Leader in the United Methodist Church.
In this interview he talks about his childhood, his West Point experiences (as a Cadet, Instructor, and Coach), his Army service, and his post-military career in intercollegiate athletics. He recalls the deaths of President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and remembers when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. He contextualizes his relationship with his wife, Sue, with what he was going through at the time. He discusses his experiences in Vietnam as a combat leader, and he shares lessons from his time at the Military Academy in both a teaching and coaching role. At the end of the interview, he reflects on what his service and West Point mean to him.