Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Medevac Flight

The Medevac Flight

He hadn’t imagined going home this way. The cargo plane had two rows of bunks to accommodate the wounded, stacked side by side down its center and bolted to the floor. Racks of double bunks also lined the port and starboard bulkheads. Every bunk had a wounded soldier, or sailor or airman strapped into it on takeoff.
Nurses and corpsmen dressed in BDU’s moved from bunk to bunk administering medication, passing out bottles of water and sandwiches and offering words of encouragement. “You’ll be home soon.”
It was a long, long flight to Washington, DC. The plane would stop only once for refueling in Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska on the journey. Many bed pans and colostomy bags would need empting.
He was a twenty-two year old second lieutenant and among the lucky ones assigned to the upper bunks because they could climb up and down on their own. Some in upper bunks lacked an arm or hand. He was among the especially lucky who were still whole.
With barely more than a month in country, an explosion had ended his tour. He hadn’t been wearing body armor, none of them had. My fault. I was in charge. It was so damn hot. Even so, I should have insisted.
No one else blamed him. They gave him a frigging medal, a purple heart, his wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time medal. Guilt was a constant companion.
Sufficiently far from the blast to survive, he sustained wounds from many pieces of shrapnel. Two punctured his left lung, two tore meat from his right shoulder, another tore meat from his left, another collapsed veins in his groin, smaller pieces peppered his body. His wounds had to be minor compared to those of his men who were closer.
He wondered what had happened to Swartz and Mendoza. It had been over a month and a half and no one had been able to tell him what had happened. Maybe they don’t want me to know. He felt guilty that he did not know, that he was going home without knowing, that he was going home at all. His body still needed rehabilitation, but he wasn’t like these others, truly disabled.
The novel propped on his chest was a gift from a helicopter pilot who had left on an earlier flight. The pilot had lost a hand and was worried how the loss would affect his wife, and how he would provide for his family, now that flying helicopters was out of the question. The pilot wasn’t whole and he still was. It was a simple as that. So why did he feel guilty even being grateful that he was whole? Did his gratitude suggest that the pilot, and all these men who had lost limbs, were something less? He really didn’t want to see it that way.
The nurse in his section of the plane was a first lieutenant, which meant she was probably older than he. She cropped her wavy blond hair above shoulder length, and wore no makeup. Baggy BDU’s cloaked what looked to be a great figure. The way she moved, her strength and grace and balance, suggested it was. He wanted it to be. Her mane framed a high forehead, wide cheekbones and bright blue eyes. A too-wide mouth, square jaw and a scattering of freckles made her more girl-next-door than model-beautiful, but more attractive for it.
Moving from bunk to bunk in his line of sight, the nurse distracted him from reading. With a touch here and word there, she gave solace to men who hadn’t seen a woman like her in quite some time. He hadn’t seen a woman like her in a long time. Those who were well enough hung on her words and basked in her smiles. Those who were not demanded most of her time.
When she passed, sometimes she would smile and ask how he was. Her name tag read M. Sommerville. He kept the exchanges short, even though he desperately wanted her attention too. The others needed her much more. M might stand for Mary. His mother’s name was Mary.
Walter Reed Army Hospital waited for him. He was healthy enough that he would probably complete his rehab as an outpatient. That meant time with his family, and a chance to connect with old friends before going back on duty. Will the wounds affect my next assignment? At least I can count on having a next assignment. The ceaseless drone of the engines lulled him to sleep.
He woke needing to pee. Climbing down from the bunk made his chest ache where the doctor had done emergency surgery under a local anesthetic to slip a vacuum tube between his ribs, drain the blood and reinflate his lung. He walked along the steel floor to join a line waiting to use the head. Bags of urine hanging off the sides of bunks of catheterized troops made him doubly grateful to be ambulatory. On the way back, he met her.
“I see you are up. How are you feeling?” she said.
“Good.” He lowered his voice. “Next to the rest of these guys, I’m doing great. You’re wonderful with them.”
Her smile lit the dark interior of the plane like a ray of sunshine. “Where are you from?” she asked.
Is she flirting with me?
“I’m from Alexandia, Virginia. When we hit the ground, I’m almost home. Where are you from?”
She’s even prettier when she smiles.
“I grew up an army brat, but right now, I’m from San Diego.”
“I’m an army brat too.”
Just then, one of the more seriously wounded men down the aisle moaned and asked for more medication. “I’ve got to go,” she said.
He went back to his bunk, climbed in and finally got into the novel the pilot had given him. When she would pass, she smiled and sometimes pause to chat.
We had a moment there. Didn't we?
He let his mind drift over the events of the past year. Graduation leave, Officer’s Basic School at Ft. Sill, Jump School, Ranger School. Ft. Sill hadn’t been all studies. There had been wild parties, weekend football games in Dallas and U of O, dances at the O’ Club and beautiful women. Time at Ft. Benning managed to produce its own series of escapades. Life had been a blur. He had lit the candle at both ends and didn’t care. He lived like there might not be a tomorrow. As it turned out, there damn near hadn’t been.
He watched the nurse, ministering to the troops, smiling and sharing words as she passed. He soaked in the essence of the woman. Generous. Giving.
There’s no chance, but I’m losing a piece of my heart here.
Dragging a notepad from his duffel, he scribbled down what he was feeling.
On the ground, after the plane had taxied to the terminal, while preparing to disembark, he had a chance to speak with her one last time. “What does M stand for?”
She looked confused. “M?”
“Your name tag says your first initial is M. I wondered what M stood for?”
“Oh. It’s not my name tag. My uniforms weren’t clean and I borrowed this from a friend. My name is Nancy.”
He quickly scribbled something on the notepad, tore out a page and gave it to her. “I’d like you to have this.”
He shouldered his duffel and moved down the corridor towards the exit. He glanced back and waved. She held the paper in one hand and waved goodbye with her other, and turned to read.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Arthur Ashe, Muhammed Ali, Elvis Presley and Free Booze

Arthur Ashe, Muhammed Ali, Elvis Presley and Free Booze

It was 1966. A group of West Point cadets was taking a PE class, volleying tennis balls on the courts in the south east corner of The Plain, opposite the old stone library. A skinny, black Second Lieutenant moved among them offering words of encouragement and correcting form and technique.
“You know who that guy is?” one of the cadets asked another.
“The skinniest guy in the Office of Physical Education after Joe Palone?” the second said.
“That’s Arthur Ashe,” said the first cadet.
“Arthur Ashe? Who is Arthur Ashe?”
The first cadet looked at the second as though he had just crawled from the primordial ooze with an IQ to match. “He was the NCAA Tennis Champion last year.”
“Yeah? He sure is skinny. So what’s he doing here?”
“Ya think maybe the tennis coach would like to have his help coaching the tennis team?”
I played the part of the uninformed Neanderthal in this conversation. I always felt a special connection to Arthur Ashe after that PE class. It was the pinnacle of my less than illustrious tennis career that, at one shining moment, I had my forehand complimented by one of the best ever.
I later learned that Second Lieutenant Arthur Ashe had graduated from UCLA on an ROTC scholarship and, as a result, owed the army three years of service. The connection I felt (feel) to Arthur Ashe was deepened by the fact that he served, and the manner of his service. Arthur Ashe served without complaint, without fanfare, as was his style. It had to kill his soul to miss major tournaments, some as close as fifty miles from West Point in NYC, because he couldn’t arrange leave. However, no one I know ever heard a peep from him.
Veterans Day, 11-11-11, is tomorrow and this got me to thinking about those who served, those who haven’t, and how that changes perceptions.
Not long after I began my connection to Arthur Ashe, Muhammed Ali (aka Cassius Marcellus Clay) ran afoul of the draft. I was a huge Cassius Clay fan. I watched on TV when he won the gold medal in the light heavyweight division in the 1960 Olympics. I was a young boy boxing in Golden Gloves and wanted to be just like Cassius Clay.
Sometime later in his professional career, he came under the influence of the militant Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammed Ali. That was okay with me. I didn’t care what he wanted his name to be or how he worshipped, I was still a fan.
Then the draft board called his name. He reported to the induction station with the stated intent to serve. At one point he was addressed scornfully by an official there as Cassius Clay, instead of Muhammed Ali. He backed out, saying he had been “disrespected,” and claiming his religious Muslim beliefs forbade him from combat. He was stripped of his heavyweight championship and went through years of hell before being reinstated and winning a Supreme Court case upholding his position. All of this was of little importance to me. The fact that he had refused to serve broke my connection to one of my biggest heroes.
Elvis Presley was another of my heroes. My mom had to talk me out of renting a powder blue tuxedo for my senior prom, because I wanted to look just like Elvis. I sang “Blue Suede Shoes” and other Elvis songs in the shower (Okay, I admit it …, I still do). I also wore my hair a long, combed back over both ears like Elvis’. More interesting was my army-colonel father’s reaction to Elvis.
When Elvis was every teenage girl’s dreamboat, wiggling his hips on the Ed Sullivan Show, my father had the utmost distain for him. Then the army drafted Elvis. Elvis served in a cavalry unit in Germany. There he met the then fourteen-year-old Priscilla, kept his nose clean and rose to the rank of sergeant. After Elvis returned to his rock and roll life, two things were obvious. Suddenly, to my dad, Elvis was okay, one of those who had served and deserved respect for doing so in an exemplary fashion. Elvis for his part embraced a bigger, older audience. He sang a rich mix of gospel and classic tunes in among his new rock and roll hits. He had grown from being a teen heartthrob to “The King.”
“Where does the “free booze” come in?” you ask. In the 1960’s Cadets from West Point visited two kinds of bars in NYC, the inexpensive, blue-collar workingman’s bars where we would go to drink, talk and visit with friends; and the expensive, upscale bars on First and Second Avenue, where young women would go to see and be seen, to do and be undone. In the former we would wear our uniforms and often be rewarded with free drinks for doing so.
There was a war on. Partly out of reaction against the growing anti-war movement, partly because they had served in WWII and Korea and sympathized with what we were soon to face, and partly because they realized how broke most of us were, the vets who frequented these bars coughed up for a lot free booze over the years. They seemed happy to provide it, and we were happy to accept it. Today, it’s a tradition I like to continue when I see a young marine, soldier, sailor or airman in uniform.
Unfortunately, this brotherhood of those who served is shrinking dramatically. I recently read that the percentage of all Americans who served in WWII over four years was 11.2%. That doesn’t count the women who took over men’s jobs in the USA. It is also worth noting that in the demographic of men ages twenty to thirty five nearly half served. By comparison, only 4.3% of the population served in Vietnam over twelve years, and only .45% of the population has served in the Global War on Terror in the last ten years.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the “peace dividend” of the late twentieth century stripped 350,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen from the ranks of America’s armed forces, and these were never replaced. This reduced force cycles to and from Afghanistan and Iraq, such that many of our servicemen now have four, five or more deployments. Imagine all the families whose mommy or daddy has been away from home in harm’s way that many times. We who are not now serving are all beneficiaries of this service to our nation, to our safety.
Today we find ourselves at another juncture where the national inclination may be to try to seize another “peace dividend.” Before we make the mistake of again reducing the size or budgets of our armed forces, we should take a moment on this Veterans Day to remember the lesson of 9-11, to be vigilant, not complacent.
This is not a new bridge to cross. Rudyard Kipling exposed a similar sentiment and time in the United Kingdom when writing the poem “Tommy” about a British Soldier, Tommy Adkins, who served in 1815:
“For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!" But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot.”


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What My Dad Found in the Great Seal of the United States

My dad died a couple of years ago. To say we didn’t always see eye-to-eye at times is an understatement. Our differences, however, weren’t on the political front. A fellow West Pointer, historian and teacher of international relations, my dad helped to shape many of my political viewpoints. Through the years, he emphasized one particular theme often. My dad believed the guidance we find on one side of the Great Seal of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum,” embodies the most important strength of America. Literally translated, this means, “From Many One.” If you never noticed the Great Seal before, it is on the back of every dollar bill in use since 1935. The words “E Pluribus Unum” are on the banner held in the eagle’s beak.
On July fourth 1776, congress authorized the creation of the Great Seal, our national emblem, and appointed the first of three committees that would take six years to finalize its design. Many of our founding fathers worked on these committees. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams comprised the first. The guidance they chose to include on our national emblem is significant and lasting.
From 1892 to 1924, America experienced a massive influx of European immigrants through Ellis Island, the “Gateway to America.” The way these people, with all their disparate languages and cultures, integrated themselves into America represents the ideal of “From Many One.” My own German ancestors had immigrated to New York only a few years earlier. Listening to a cabbie from India speak of finding a husband for his daughter back in his home village, it is easy to imagine the process “From Many One” has somehow broken down. The sight of a Muslim woman in full burka, or a Mexican-American waving a Mexican flag at a soccer game where the Mexican national team is playing the American national team might raise the same sentiments.
Especially in the political arena, this American ideal, “From Many One,” seems an impossible dream, a fading Camelot that never really existed except in the imagination. Today, we Americans divide ourselves politically by race, by religion, by ethnic origin, by political persuasion, and further, by belief, into a myriad of interest groups. In America, heralded as a great melting pot of ideas and cultures, sometimes it seems cultures don’t melt, ideas don’t blend, and the pot boils over. One has only to watch Sunday morning TV, or walk by a newsstand, to notice advocates on all sides of issues clawing at each other. Can it be that it has always been this way? Have Americans always torn at each other’s throats in so unseemly a fashion?

As a person who became an adult during the 1960’s my observation is yes, it has always been this way. The revolution that gave birth to America tore families apart, and less than half of those living in America at the time supported it. That America fought a bloody civil war in the 1860’s indicates how divided “We the People” were then.  

My dad saw all this and it troubled him, as it troubles me. However, he took a longer view, one I try to emulate. He recalled that it took generations for the European immigrants to integrate themselves into America. Little Italys and Irish communities still stand alongside newer little Koreas, little Vietnams, and Chinatowns. Swedish and Norwegian flags still hang from homes in my hometown of Seattle. That Indian cab driver’s son is a UW graduate and a Microsoft engineer, his daughter is a UW graduate and a registered nurse. Who knows how “integrated” into mainstream America their children will be? The flag-waving Mexican’s kids speak English (and Spanish) and watch American TV, and that Muslim woman deserves the right to worship and dress any way she chooses, a right guaranteed to all Americans, bought with generations of American blood. The process, “From Many One,” takes time. It is happening before our eyes, albeit slowly.
Dad also realized “From Many One” did not mean to make us all the same, homogenized into a single set of beliefs, except with regard to the principles of the constitution. It is in these all Americans must come together as one: freedom of speech, assembly, worship, equality before the law. Sometimes defending these freedoms takes strange forms, like recognizing the right of the truly offensive to burn the American flag as a form of free speech, like defending the rights of protesters who spit at you as you march off to war. The true essence of America is respect for the rights of others to dress, live, worship and express opinions that do not agree with our own ways.
American politics is a full contact sport. We don’t have to go far to find people who disagree vehemently with one or another of our views. However, on this special day, September 11, 2011, while we remember the attacks that brought us together in anger, in grief, and in shock, let us reaffirm that we will defend the rights of those who disagree with us. They are our acquaintances, friends, neighbors and family. The freedoms we cherish make America wonderfully messy. My dad would be the first to encourage us to advocate strongly for our own positions. Today, however, he would probably want us all to take time from polarizing rants to stand on the middle ground where many become one.
Pete Grimm