Branham said the Air Force’s daisy-cutter bombs had cleared areas in the jungle for helicopters to land and expel CIA operatives and long-range patrol officers.
Branham sent a mayday call seconds before emergency landing the chopper in the clearing, leaving himself and his co-pilot within about a mile’s sprint from the enemy soldiers they were just attacking.
The pair quickly took cover behind debris piles, Branham firing his rifle in a sweeping motion to make the Vietnamese soldiers believe they had more weapons and manpower than they actually did.
"It’s just the two of us, and my co-pilot has a .38 revolver with six bullets, which is useless,” Branham said.
He was firing his last magazine and they heard enemy soldiers encroaching closer, just yards away when the duo heard the distinctive rotary blades of a Chinook helicopter.
"I said, Rudy, pray that helicopter is coming for us,” Branham said.
The helicopter came to a screaming halt, and hovered right over their hole.
"They threw ropes out and a dozen infantry men repelled down into the hole with us,” Branham said. "They got there just in time.”
The infantry men engaged the enemy while Branham and his co-pilot climbed a ladder thrown to them from the helicopter, then were whisked back to base.
Branham’s bravery during his 26 years of service and active combat follows his family’s legacy of service to country that spans to the American Revolution, with two Branhams serving under George Washington at Valley Forge.
Growing up, Branham said he heard tales of military adventures from his grandfather and father, who lost his leg in anti-aircraft fire when just 18 years old while serving in World War II.
"I knew I needed to serve in a war,” Branham said of his determination to leave college at St. Cloud State after his second year and join the fight in Vietnam.
He got a job at an airport, getting money and flying lessons, with the goal to better qualify himself to fly helicopters in Vietnam.
Branham took the quickest training option to get into Vietnam by completing Officer Candidate School in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
The day after he arrived in Vietnam, Branham was thrust in the midst of the war.
He flew helicopters into ground fights between the U.S. infantry and the enemy, providing close support with rockets and machine guns to suppress the enemy.
"I was shot at almost 300 days in a year going to fire fights,” Branham said. "I went to fire fights every single day multiple times. We would take four to 20 bullet holes in the aircraft every day, and we’d come home OK.”
He said the key to his story is the advice he received from his dad a week before leaving for ’Nam after asking his dad how he could demonstrate his father’s bravery when in a firefight.
"He said nobody’s guaranteed a long life, but you are guaranteed eternal life with Christ,” Branham said with emotion. "So, he said, don’t worry about it, just go do your job and you’ll be fine,”
Branham, a Christian, carried that advice throughout his career and life.
Before every mission in Vietnam, his aircraft crews would recite Psalms 23:4: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.”
Two decades after Vietnam, Branham was a lieutenant colonel commanding a squadron of 18 Apache helicopters in the Gulf War.
Since he was the only one in his squadron to ever been in a fire fight, Branham said he would lead every attack, flying the front seat position.
"I led every attack to get shot at first,” Branham said.
The first day, they flew the Apaches about 30 feet off the ground at 180 mph on a mission to engage the Iraqi Republican Guards Army.
Branham said tracers were coming at him, and he took out a .50 caliber Soviet antiaircraft gun, then ordering the helicopters to hover until smoke from burning oil fields in Kuwait cleared, which revealed 250 Iraqi tanks lined up with 100 yards between them.
The tanks started to fire at them, but Branham said a Soviet tank can only shoot one mile, so they stayed one mile and 250 meters away, lined up and if a tank shot at us, they killed it.
After shooting 40 to 50 tanks, Branham said the Iraqis began scrambling out of their tanks and running away.
"Our unit came out of the Gulf War with the most enemy vehicles destroyed, 147 enemy vehicles destroyed in the four battles we did against them,” Branham said.
He later moved to Florida and was loaned by the military to the State Department from 1991-1993 to fight in the war on drugs against cartels by leading raids on airfields and labs in other countries.
"We would bust over a billion (dollars) in drugs a year,” Branham said. "Our average bust would be $20 million of cocaine and a duffel bag with $50,000-$80,000 in cash.”
He said they captured labs in Bolivia and intercepted drug distributors going in and out of Peru, flying at night conducting drug transfer interception missions wearing night vision goggles and working with Drug Enforcement Agency agents, all former military, and counter-narcotics police.
"Our job was to get the briefing, fly the mission, get them to the target and then my Army officer would go out there and take accountability with the drugs and the cash and any captives that remained,” Branham said.
He would travel to Washington, D.C., every six weeks, visit the State Department and deliver a briefing to the U.S. House Government Operations Oversight Committee about their activities, goals and objectives in each country.
He said their efforts resulted in great strides in eradicating cocaine in Bolivia and Guatemala by 1993, when he and wife Barb moved back to Minnesota to be closer to family.
Branham worked in the computer industry as a civilian then retired in 2009 due to medical issues caused by Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.
Despite some challenges, he has remained actively working in service to others.
He volunteers for the Met Council for Independent Living installing ramps for veterans (with materials currently funded through Tee it up for the Troops and the American Legion Post 210 in Lakeville) and with his wife he serves as a marriage mentor at Hosanna Lutheran Church in Lakeville.
The couple will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary next year.
"Because of all the stressful military life we saw, we really have this heart for marriages because we saw how hard divorce is,” Branham said.
Together they have mentored more than 50 engaged couples and mentor other couples having difficulties.
They also lead an annual weekend Christian marriage retreat up North every April focusing on couples who have a military deployment coming up or have just returned from deployment.
"We stress to them how important faith is for a marriage,” Branham said. "That’s where our heart is.”
For his years of dedicated service, Branham retired from the military 24 years ago as a highly decorated colonel.
Among his awards are several medals for valor, including a distinguished flying cross, a bronze star and silver star.