Walt Todhunter, 76, an ordinary American hero, died of complications from COVID-19 on December 28, 2022. For most of his adult life, starting at 19, he flew helicopters in service to his country and his fellow humans, saving fellow soldiers in Vietnam, fighting forest fires in the Northwest, and air lifting critical care patients to Washington D.C. area hospitals.
Walter Micheal Todhunter was born August 20, 1946 in Portland, Oregon, to Charles and Edna (Hageland) Todhunter and moved around the Pacific Northwest most of his early years. He spoke very fondly of the years he spent in Montana with his elder siblings, John and Vivian and was very close to his Aunt Vivian and Uncle Paul Toepfer, who had a farm near Stevensville, Montana.
Walt looked at life as an adventure and by all accounts he found it along the way.
Walt was living in Bloomington, Illinois when he graduated from high school. During his senior year at Bloomington High School, he was pictured in the school’s yearbook dressed as Santa Claus, clearly hamming it up for the camera. It was also around this time that his sister Vivian introduced him to Linda Muir, a co-worker she’d befriended while working at a bookstore in nearby Peoria. The two teenagers hit it off and Vivian’s friend soon became her sister-in-law. Walt and Linda were married at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Peoria the winter after Linda graduated from Richwoods Community High School.
While attending community college, the prospect of being drafted into military service led Walt to enlist in the U.S. Army. His entrance exam scores qualified him to select his path and he chose helicopter flight school. He learned to fly Huey helicopters while posted at Fort Wolters, Texas and Fort Rucker, Alabama where their daughter (Michelle) was born. The young family was moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina before Walt was sent to serve in Vietnam. Upon his return, the family reunited and were posted at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, with Walt serving as flight instructor on Cobra helicopters. Their first son (Walter Micheal II) was born before completing his military obligation.
Walt continued to pilot helicopters in one capacity or another for the duration of his professional career. After leaving the Army, Walt completed the training program in Oklahoma City to become an air traffic controller. He and his young family moved to his assignment in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Missing flying, he began to perform crop dusting flights over rural Indiana. After a short time, they returned to Linda’s hometown where Walt worked as an engineer for the City of Peoria. Their second son (Jonathan) was born during this time, just before the young couple’s marriage came to an end.
It is not an exaggeration to say Walt was a hero – there is written, documented proof from the U.S. Army. See the official citation at: https://valor.militarytimes.com/hero/43369 where the following sentence summarizes his actions which took place on December 8, 1967 when he was only 21 years old, “Warrant Officer Todhunter continued his passes with empty guns to draw enemy fire until the rescue of the downed crew was effected.”
When the Udvar-Hazy extension of the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum opened in 2004, he was honored with the inclusion of his name on the plaque of honor for the Distinguished Flying Cross Society. Fun fact, his name is listed only five names below Charles Lindbergh’s! Walt’s family shared this summary which listed his honors and activities to that point in time. https://airandspace.si.edu/support/wall-of-honor/walter-m-todhunter
Eventually, Walt moved to San Diego, California where in 1978 he met Debra Radican. They remained together the rest of his life, sharing one adventure after another. Debbi joined Walt when he took a job flying Forest and Park Service contacts for Inland Helicopter helping to contain fires in the remote mountains of John Day, Oregon. She drove the helicopter refueling tanker while Walt dropped large buckets of water from the air. They flew Walt’s kids out for part of the summer and his daughter remembers him introducing her to viewing the Milky Way with the naked eye, as there was virtually zero light pollution. Walt also taught them how to recognize constellations such as the Big and Little Dipper as well as Orion, and the joys of living “four hours from nowhere.” The kids also were thrilled to be treated with an open-door, treetop-skimming ride in “Dad’s helicopter,” while Linda wasn’t quite as thrilled once she learned of the adventure.
Walt (and Deb) did similar work in Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. The kids again were able to join them for part of the summer in Yosemite and recall Walt driving them in his Subaru though one of the majestic redwood trees. Walt wasn’t content to always take the most direct path but he truly stopped to enjoy where he was and these “dry seasons” with the Forest and Park Services were filled with experiences others would never know.
Some years later, Walt was in rural Arizona flying sections of new power wire that linesmen were installing. The guide wire on the power line was dropped and the helicopter’s rotor blades became tangled in the wires. In addition to totaling the helicopter, he was seriously injured. Nonetheless, Walt was back to flying within a month.
Walt and Deb made their way to Northern Virginia where he began flying medivac (Pegasus) for the University of Virginia Medical Center. He then flew for MedStar out of Washington (DC) Medical Center for many years.
Wherever he lived, Walt remained a member of the National Guard, typically, flying drills at least one weekend a month. Prior to retiring from flying, Walt flew full-time with DC’s Army National Guard in support of a counter-illegal drugs task force for the District of Columbia. His work of helping to stop “bad actors” continued when he took his first ever “desk job.” His last professional job had him working for the Federal government as an agent with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Walt was proud of this work, although he wasn’t able to share much of the details.
Walt and Debbi lived a number of places in the Northern Virginia area before settling in Haymarket, Virginia. They temporarily retired to Ankeny, Iowa, before returning to Virginia, this time to Stephenson, with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They would have celebrated their 39th year of marriage on December 28, the day Walt passed away.
Walt, who was unable to overcome breathing issues caused by COVID-19, was hospitalized for a few days at Winchester Medical Center before being medivac-ed to INOVA Fairfax – a hospital where he had landed from time to time over the years, picking up a critical patient for delivery to Washington Hospital. He succumbed to the complications on December 28, 2022. Walt is survived by his wife Debra (Radican) Todhunter; brother John (Sally Gollehon) Todhunter of Hemet, CA; sister Vivian Todhunter of Missoula, MT; daughter Michelle (Don) Lavanty of Ashburn, VA; son Jonathan (Amy) Todhunter of Des Moines, IA; and five grandchildren Aleigh, Madelinn, Abigail, and Michael Todhunter, and Kristina Lavanty. He is preceded in death by both parents, numerous aunts and uncles, as well as son Walter M. Todhunter, II.
Honoring his wishes, the family will be holding a private celebration of life.