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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?