‘Smiling warrior’ to be honored

Ann Boutwell said her son was never supposed to fly.

“His eyesight was so poor, he barely got his private license,” Boutwell said of her third son, the late Brig. Gen. Errol Hay Van Eaton.

He was also dyslexic, and had only partial sight in one eye. But the boy, who was raised by a flight instructor, was determined he would fly.

And so, Boutwell claims, was someone else.

“God wanted him to be a pilot,” said the 81-year-old Port Orchard woman, explaining it took, depending on your interpretation, an extreme bit of luck or a touch of divine intervention to put her son at the controls of U.S. Army helicopters.

“He enlisted as a cook, knowing he would never pass the eye exam,” said Boutwell. But as the busloads of kids arrived for training camp, she said, the short-staffed medical personnel neglected to give her son an eye exam.

“He was three months into the helicopter program by the time they caught up with him,” she said. “He was the top guy, and the instructors didn’t want to let him go.”

That was in 1968, and Boutwell said, “The next thing I knew, he was flying Chinooks in Vietnam.”

The man who wasn’t supposed to fly came home with seven medals and went on to earn his Master Army Aviator Wings.

By 1970, Van Eaton was married and a father, and although he went off active duty that year, Boutwell said her son continued to soar up the ranks of the Army Reserve and National Guard.

“He loved the Army from the day he started,” Boutwell said, explaining her son eventually earned the rank of Brigadier General and took command of the 66th Aviation Brigade at Camp Murray until his retirement in 1998.

He retired from the Army, but not from flying, Boutwell said, explaining that the man who was licensed to fly “more lighter-than-air crafts in the world” would not stay on ground for long, despite many close calls.

One dramatic accident even made the TV news and front-page headlines when Van Eaton was left hanging by a thread after his hot-air balloon snagged a radio tower in Seattle.

But unfortunately, Van Eaton ran out of close calls. The details are sketchy, Boutwell said, but apparently her son was flying helicopters in Haiti when he joined a group of volunteers flying out to rescue another pilot.

She never got the whole story, she said, but she knows the helicopter crashed, and her son died in March 1999, barely six months after his retirement.

In reports of the crash, she said neither her son’s name nor rank were mentioned, and she worried her son’s death would go unnoticed. But soon, she said, there was a memorial held at Fort Lewis for Van Eaton, where 1,500 came to honor her son, she said.

She was touched — and a little awed —by how many people came to pay tribute, but even more touched by the letter that came out of the blue earlier this year. telling her the Army was naming its new Reserve Center at Fort Lewis after her son.

Boutwell said she had no idea the dedication was in the works until she got the invitation to the ceremony, planned for Sept. 11 at the post.

Told she could bring as many people as she liked to the ceremony, Boutwell said she wasted no time calling her family, including Van Eaton’s two brothers and sister. By the time she called Van Eaton’s wife, his two sons, two grandsons and 10 nieces and nephews, Boutwell said, she had dozens of attendants.

“I called them back and said, ‘I’m up to 30. Is that still OK?’ ” Boutwell said, laughing. “They told me, ‘Yes,’ that I could bring everyone.”

Boutwell said she could not be happier about this perhaps final honor for her son.

“I’m just thrilled that he is being remembered in this way,” she said, explaining that her son gave his all to both his passions — flying, and the military.

“He loved the Army from the day he started,” Boutwell said, explaining that he could never seem to stop smiling, even in his first official photo, where his mother said you “are ordered to look stoic.

“Look at that,” she says, pointing to the grin forming on her 18-year-old son’s cheeks, captured nearly 40 years ago in his first military uniform.

But the proud mom’s favorite photo just might be the last official portrait of her “smiling warrior,” showing Van Eaton in his blue uniform, metals covering his left breast.

“The only smiling general you will ever see,” Boutwell said, holding up the framed photo and pointing out the script her son added to the glass with a gold marker pen: “Mom, I couldn’t have done it without you,” he wrote.

Boutwell said she is not necessarily proudest that her son achieved so much, given that he comes from a long line of pioneering folks, whom she said include the founders of Hoquiam and Eatonville, the fifth governor of Oregon, and a chief justice of the Washington State Supreme Court.

What she is the most proud of, Boutwell said, is that he overcame great odds to pursue his dreams.

“He did so well, in spite of so much,” she said, referring to the sight problems that should have grounded him from the beginning. “Any child that has those difficulties should know what they can achieve.”

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