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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Once a Soldier...

I got up this morning at 2 am to take my husband Don to the airport. He's on the last leg of his training in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan. There are those who think he's crazy for going. And others who probably think I'm crazy for supporting him. But those are the folks who really don't know who he is...

Don joined the military in 1967. His first deployment was Vietnam, where he was wounded twice. He doesn't talk about the Vietnam War, but others have told me when his buddies were dead on either side of him and only a handful of wounded soldiers were holding their position against overwhelming odds, he thought he wasn't going to make it off that hill alive.

We recently ran across his album of soldiers who graduated boot camp with him, and of the ninety who left for Vietnam, less than half survived the war. As a result of that experience, Don doesn't have any patience for those who wear their military "career" on their shirtsleeves but who actually were in service for only two years and never saw combat. Or for those who sit in air conditioned offices and think they know exactly what the troops should be doing.

He remained in the military for nearly thirty years and served in every conflict through Desert Storm. He was one of an elite few who airlifted the students out of Grenada. At the U.S. Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, Alabama, they even have a picture of him, alone, walking away from his helicopter after landing in Grenada (shown at right).

He was in Panama when they flushed out Noriega. He served two tours in Korea - the coldest place on earth, he said, until he got to Kansas. He served in Honduras, El Salvador, and in Saudi Arabia, among others.

He taught Army pilots how to fly Hueys and Black Hawks for more than sixteen years. One of the pilots he taught was in Somalia when his helicopter was shot, and Don was proud that "his student" made it back to base and to safety. The incident was immortalized in "Black Hawk Down."

He retired from the military in 1996. He flew EMS for a few years and then took a job with the North Carolina government, fighting forest fires by helicopter. Recently, an old commander from the Army asked him to come back. He remembered that "Don didn't flinch in a war zone." Don jumped at the chance.

To those who think it's "too dangerous" for him to fly in Afghanistan, I wonder if they understand that for the past few years, my husband has been flying INTO forest fires.

Yes, Afghanistan is dangerous. And I know, as every military spouse knows, that there are no guarantees he will come home safely. But I understand the sentiment that so many have expressed: he is doing what he loves the most.

And in the end, isn't it better to live the life you've always dreamed about, than to die feeling that you never lived at all?


p.m.terrell said...

From Woodberry Bowen, Lumberton, NC:

Whew! What a story, what a life, what a tribute. I knew some of those things about Don, but not all. And that a true hero who stands so tall could at the same time stoop to help helpless creatures. That seems to go along with "hero", also. None of us can really imagine what Don has been through or what is yet to come. We see through a glass darkly. I have peered into the glass of TV picture tube often, watching the latest Vietnam War movie or documentary? Joan asks why I never seem to miss even one. I reply that I vividly remember standing in an AAFES induction line in my skivvy shorts, waiting for the once over by the Army physician, a few questions, a confirmation that my heart was beating and then on to my commitment as a US NAVY volunteer. I was guaranteed the school I wanted: Photography, taught at the great Rochester Institute of Technology. But the Navy never guaranteed the assignment thereafter. Most likely I was destined to be an aerial camera operator on an unarmed F-16 flying over North Vietnam. To eliminate motion blur in the photos those F-16s often flew slower over critical targets, making them easier targets for SAM's. I thought all you really had to do was breathe and you passed the physical. Apparently not so for me. My medical history included a childhood eye operation for diplopia (double vision), which had not completely resolved. Still, I had always squinted a rifle with one eye. My vet buddies told me that the weapon they'd likely issue me required both eyes and some depth perception. Yet, I was surprised they designated me 1-Y. Because I had friends who had gone, were there, or had returned, some to be buried, I thought daily about them and imagined what they went through. I still do. I told Joan that I felt an obligation to see all those films because I felt an obligation to see at least some semblance of what had happened to them since through quirk of health and fate I did not have to go. I don't think the public can ever fully grasp the physical and mental suffering required of the valiant warrior enduring wounds both seen and unseen. And we grasp even less the enormity of the debt we owe them for their service. Both in his valor and his humility and in his empathy for all creatures great and small, Don is a Real Man. And I feel privileged to know him. May God bless him and keep him safe. And may He comfort you during your vigil for Don's return. Always, Woody

p.m.terrell said...
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