CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- “Veterans take care of veterans. If you need help out there, please go ask for help. Don’t be ashamed,” said Tom Oakley, a Vietnam veteran.

Oakley was drafted into the U.S. Army when he was 19. He served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 as a door gunner on a recovery helicopter as a part of the Pipesmoke Recovery Team. 

“I’m not going to lie, some tears came out. I thought I didn't do anything, they’re going to take me away,” he said.

Oakley's team rescued helicopters that were shot down or crashed in the III Corps area of Vietnam, from the Central Highlands to the Mekong Delta.

He had never flown in a helicopter before, so all the training he received was “on the job,” which means in his first time up, they flew right into enemy smoke.

“Was I scared? Oh yeah. Hardly been away from home, just like everybody else,” said Oakley.

Fifty-three years and three commendations later, including the Medal of Valor, Oakley has a different attitude.

“It definitely makes you a better person, you appreciate more of what you have," he said. "You learn discipline, you learn duty, you earn honor. Another thing too, you come back to your community and you become good citizens.”

But it took time to adjust. He said the hardest thing he ever had to go through was coming back from Vietnam. 

“But I have learned in my life, and one of my favorite things I say to anybody is, you have to take a negative and turn it into a positive,” he said.

Six members of the team are still living, and Oakley reunited with four of them this past April.

“So many years go by but it was just like yesterday," he said. "The stories, the comradeship, realizing all that you went through, we talked about all that.”

Now he works with veterans to help them adjust. 

“I know how I was treated, and I don't want anything like that to happen to them again. It’s a very heartwarming thing to do. Because we share a bond, because only veterans really know what it’s like,” Oakley said.

Oakley is on the board of the Vietnam Veterans Foundation in Lovingston and led the charge to move the museum to Nelson County.

They will have a service at 11 a.m. at the Blue Mountain Barrel House on Veteran’s Day with a Jeep festival the following day.

He also belongs to the Dogwood Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation.