Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Hero

41 years ago today a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, 64-13116 assigned to the 243rd Freight Train was hovering over its eleventh sling load of the day. They were resupplying Korean firebases in the area surrounding Phu Hiep, RVN. The canvas rings for 3 loads - fuel, water and boxed items weighing 3 tons was slipped onto the hook. A young FE, who had just turned 20 called the load up and off the ground. At 30’ the loads all cleared and the helicopter continued to rise until the loads were at 50’.
After a hover check the copilot began his takeoff, but at transition to flight around 100’ off the ground the #2 engine failed. Rotor rpms dropped and the helicopter began settling back toward the earth. The pilot took control; the young FE punched the loads free with the aircraft still 60’ in the air and then the #1 engine began to fail. The aircraft lurched forward and took a nose high attitude. Unable to maintain control of the aircraft or altitude the helicopter hit a 9’ high berm making up part of the base’s perimeter and at the same time the aft rotors struck fence posts on the berm causing the blades to separate from the ship. At that point the aft section of the aircraft became airborne and pivoted around the forward rotor system. The helicopter hit the ground on its right side just inside the perimeter wire setting off claymore mines and flares. It caught fire instantly.
The pilot, copilot and crew chief were able to exit the right side cockpit door followed by the door gunner. It’s believed that the Flight Engineer and the only passenger, a Korean Liaison officer, were thrown to the back of aircraft when the nose rose after #1 failed. They were not seen by anyone after the impact. Fire completely consumed the entire aircraft in five minutes or less.
After analyzing the remains of the engines it was determined that the cause of the #2 stoppage was the failure of a small 2 to 3 inch drive shaft  inside the fuel control module and that the aircraft was outside of the flight limitations for recovery on a single engine (something that was done on a regular basis - usually without any consequences).
The young 20 year old Flight Engineer was my friend, Steven Kearns. He had joined the company as a maintenance tech about three months into my tour . We shared a number of things, not the least of which was a desire to fly in the worst way. As a team leader I taught him as much as I could – unfortunately he wasn't assigned to my team. Steven was a hard worker, putting in time and effort well beyond most of the other guys. When I moved to the TI shack we didn't get to see as much of each other, but I knew when I was checking out his team’s work on one of the aircraft that it was going to be done right!
Steven wasn’t all just business, he joined with all the guys taking time off to party or just have a good time. But there were never any excuses; he was always there the next morning ready to go!  That cheshire like grin and curly hair just kinda lit up your day.  We would occasionally talked of home – he was from Massachusetts and was looking forward to getting back there as soon as possible. He finally made it into the flight platoon as a crew chief and he was a damn good one. He crewed for me many times and I always knew I could depend on him to do a good job – the first time. As a Flight Engineer he was top notch, it was in his character. Do whatever you have to do! An example of that was one afternoon a helicopter crashed on landing at our airstrip. He was working on his ship on our flight line when it happened. He was the first guy there and he and another Freight Trainer pulled the pilots from the wreckage with no regard for their own safety. For that he was awarded the Bronze Star. That’s the kind of young man Steven Kearns was. On that fateful day in 1971 he exhibited that same character; he stayed his post and did his job without regard for his own safety.
I was back in states on extension leave when the accident occurred. I was devastated, it couldn’t happen, it didn’t happen! Once back in country I talked with everybody I could. I just didn’t believe it. Phu Hiep was a regular run for my ship, and I found out from a guy working in Ops that if I’d been there it would have been my ship’s rotation slot. To this day I can’t reconcile that…
Just last year I finally got up the courage and resolve to meet his family, his mother and two sisters – Nancy and Sue. To this day I have the note his mother so graciously wrote back in ’71 tucked away in a safe place. And I have Steven with me every day. In forty years I could count on one hand the number of days he did not cross mind, that I did not thank him for his sacrifice, that I did not wonder “what if I’d been there instead”…
If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Massachusetts Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial you’ll find his name carved in one of the stone obelisks. And you can also find a replica of a letter he wrote home in November of ’70 – one of a very few chosen to be a part of the memorial. 
In the grand scheme of things, his sacrifice may not seem like much… but to me and a number of his “buddies” in the 243rd it is… We all knew what the possibilities were and yet we dedicated our time and efforts to getting the job done and done right. Unfortunately not all of us made it through.
As solemn an occasion as I would like this to be I also think it would be befitting as a celebration; a celebration of the commitment of my generation, despite all the chaos, to our country, to our freedom, to our families, to our friends and to ourselves. We were prepared to give all and some of us were called upon to fulfill that commitment.
Steve, buddy, rest in peace… you are MY hero and deserving of much, much more.
Loads clear…

Sunday, May 27, 2012

In the foxhole...

I’ve sat down and tried to write a hundred times or more what and how the relationship is between men who have experienced war side by side. How it’s different than any other bond I’ve ever felt. You can talk about love relationships between a man and a woman, with your parents, with your lifelong friends, your “BFF” or whomever and most people get that. They’ve been there, they understand. There are words to explain it – words that make sense to almost everybody. I have yet to find the adjectives, the verbs, the context that conveys the feeling there is between guys that “share a foxhole”. 

It’s not like a first date and getting to know someone over time, it’s almost instantaneous. You hear people say they’d give up everything for so and so, they’d protect them with their own lives… push comes to shove, prove it, do it, every day… nowhere does that happen on a regular basis EXCEPT on a battlefield.

You look at the guy next to you “in the foxhole”, you know where he is, what he’s feeling, what he’s fearing, what he needs, what he wants. It doesn’t matter if he’s black or white, redneck or hippie, Christian or atheist, tall or short, married or single, or anything else. He has your back and you have his, with the ultimate sacrifice on the line. Sure you want to survive, you want to see home again, but there’s something beyond “me” that creeps in. A realization that you’re not the only one, there are others just as deserving of survival. You have to truly be willing to make that sacrifice, you have to be able to communicate that somehow and receive the same in return. Not very often are words spoken, its things as simple as a hug, a handshake, a look into their eyes, a slap on the back, a hand up. There is an intense connection that takes place, one that brings both trepidation and equanimity – calmness. Once a sincere commitment has been made and understood it will remain forever.

Down deep inside there are no nagging little questions about can I or should I or would I. You have the techniques that the military taught you, the tools of war and survival surround you; you have the obligation you made to yourself, your buddies and your country and you’re prepared to make good on them. Then one day it comes and you’re in that place, that position you prayed and hoped you or anyone would never be in. Chaos exists all around you and something clicks inside, somehow you just react. There’s no internal debate, no thought process, no scientific method to follow, no if-then. You move; you do what comes instinctively, using what resources, training and experience you have to get things done. Inside there’s no realization of what’s going on, your mind and body are set on achieving that one goal, that promise you made to yourself and those around you.

Imagine standing in the middle of a football field next to a downed helicopter surrounded by dikes and trees. Your three buddies have established a three point perimeter around you. Your air cover has been called away and you’d already sent your chopper to base to pick up the parts you need to fix and fly the cobra out. The four of you are there alone with no more than a basic load of ammunition for each of 3 M60’s, a couple of M16’s and your 45 caliber sidearm. The first “thump” was barely discernible but the next two or three were as clear as the day. All the mortar rounds impacted well behind the helicopter. Don’t stop to think that you’re standing next to hundreds of gallons of JP4, two rocket pods loaded with explosives and hundreds of rounds of 30 caliber and 7.62 ammunition. You move, finding the lowest depression you can 30 yards away from the helicopter. Your 45 is in your hand, locked and loaded as you scan the area. You’re the senior NCO, what’s your plan? You immediately start taking small arms fire from the tree line to the front of the ship, 60 yards away. No one is visible, no flashes, no markers of any kind. Your point perimeter opens up with his M60, just cutting leaves, as the incoming small arms fire continues. Unmistakably the sound and bullets of two or three AKs pierce the air eventually kicking up dust clouds around the point M60’s position and the front of the ship. From the two positions in the rear covering fire emerges. Glancing back they’re both exposed but continue to fire giving away their positions.

Without thinking, you know that the M-70, turret and 30 cal are electrically operated, you know that the aircraft electrical system is operational, you’ve been in the front seat before, you’ve fired the M-70 on test flights, you know where the 30 cal controls are, you know one well placed mortar, or a couple of AK rounds could set off the whole aircraft like a display on the fourth of July. You hear yourself yelling “cover” as you sprint to the chopper and vault into the front seat. Circuit breakers are reset, switches put in position and the aircraft begins to shake as a plume of dust and smoke rise from around the left wing. The chopper rocks back while in the distance the rounds pepper the dike area. The incoming fire stops briefly before starting again targeting the helicopter alone. A different set of switches, the M-70 thumps a few rounds into the same area. Suddenly two figures appear sprinting behind the dike headed for a tree line. All three M60s open up and the M70 drops a couple of rounds between them. As the dust settles, the firing stops - waiting for the next opportunity to make the kill. But all remains silent and then the aircraft radio crackles with traffic and the sound of incoming choppers increases in volume. The parts arrive, the cover aircraft have returned. Fixed and flyable in minutes the cobra is gone.

No one knows this story except for four young men left to fend for themselves for a couple of hours in a friendly zone, in a country at war and in a time far away. No one bothered to report it, there was no confirmation of kills, no damage to the aircraft, no physical wounds to anyone. What happened there has happened thousands of times before and since. There isn’t a hero here, just young men committed to doing what needed to be done and trusting enough in each other to believe that it would be. For some that commitment will never be tested and yet never be doubted either. For others it may come just once, but for a few every day or night or mission. Many will survive their test and so will their buddies. Some will not. The true reward for them is not a colorful ribbon and a place of honor as part of a list somewhere. The true reward is that others will take their place, will offer all that they have in the name of friendship, freedom, honor, country and pride.

Hundreds of thousands of American service men and women have offered all that they could give and it was taken from them in the name of freedom and brotherhood. Many thousands more offered but have not been asked to relinquish their tender. Behind them, alongside them and in front of them stand thousands more willing to make the same sacrifice. Thank God that they are there!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Under the nose

“Under the nose, chief”
“I have it, off 20, forward 10, off 15, off 10, left 5…hold it”
”Hooks open, rings on – all clear”
“Slack, slack, tight – loads off”
“Off 5, 10, 15, 20…”
“Gotta spin sir, slow her down… straight and true now… no swing”

First load of the day was off the ground and we were headed to a Korean firebase with a basic load of 105 rounds and a few boxes of c-rats. The door gunner and my chief relaxed up front while I lay in the hole watching the load. It had been an early morning like most, 4 AM on the flight line opening panels and running through the preflight check with my crew chief.

The Wobblies showed up a little later and I walked with them as they rechecked everything we’d just looked over. Sign off on the logbook and we were rolled out of the revetment. A couple of more “in the seat checks” and the APU whined to life pressurizing the hydraulic system. Watching from out back I listened to the cockpit talk as they fired number one. With a puff of unspent JP4 the turbine began its slow run up and the blades started to rotate. Then number two came on line and the blade rotation accelerated.

The smell of burning jet fuel filled the swirling air. With both engines on line I climbed the ramp closing it behind me. As the pilots began running the engines up to speed I walked the length of my ship. Listening for the usual grunts and groans she’d go through every morning, slight shake from that damn low right front gear. The ic crackled – “not fixed yet?”

“No, sir but it’s getting better, we’ll try again tonight”, I lamented. We’d already adjusted everything from the tire and shock pressure to the travel height.

By now we were rolling off the flight line and onto the taxiway. Then the radio and intercom came to life again with taxi instructions, weather, wind direction etc. She finally rose off the ground to hover for SAS check and then we were cleared for takeoff. Her tail lifted and nose dipped slightly as the two up front pushed and pulled this and that taking us from a hover to flight speed in no time.

“Cowboy” I chuckled to myself with a grin as my chief and I exchanged glances. He threw a thumbs up and so did the gunner. I laughed as I reached to the front transmission sump to feel the “good vibrations”, glanced at the SAS closet and then headed toward the ramp. Checking things out along the way, tool box was tied down, M70 in place with a belt of ammo, hook door was closed and then near the aft tranny I reached up to gently touch the flight control rod set before ending with the aft transmission sump. She was running well, another good day in the air.

I lowered the ramp to flat and pulled up a seat to enjoy the flight. I was always proud that my ship never had a scrub because of mechanical issues. My chief and I worked hard to keep her airworthy, after all we had to fly on her too. As a former TI and maintenance leader I knew a lot about her. And as we flew together I learned even more. I memorized her voice; she was always talking to me. I knew the “good vibrations” and the bad ones, how hot she’d run, the slight chatter from the next to last section of drive shaft, the gurgles from the pumps on the aft transmission – even how many full pumps it would take to get the hydraulic system to turn and fire the APU.

There’s nothing like flying in a hook, lots of windows and your own back porch to sit on. It always amazed me how free, how uninhibited I felt once we were in the air. Sure I was sitting on a few tons of metal that miraculously stayed in the air. But all the intercom talk, the whine of engines and transmissions, the threat from below would suddenly disappear. I was there all alone looking out across the landscape and into the blue sky, feeling like I could step off that ramp and become part of the atmosphere or effortlessly glide through the air like a bird. Free to go anywhere, to meld with the puffy clouds or mix with the occasional rain squall. Nowhere else have I ever felt a feeling like that, so all encompassing, joyful, exuberant.
The chatter of a pair of M60’s would bring me back to earth so speak. The pilot had cleared us to run a weapons check and both the gunner and my chief opened up with a few short bursts spewing a few cartridges that made their way along the flooring like a handful of grasshoppers. Not long after we were settling in over the PZ and it was time to go to work.

“Under the nose, chief…”

Friday, May 18, 2012

I Remember

I Remember
The sound is deafening, even through my flight helmet, as I struggle to see through the dust cloud spreading out below the helicopter. My lungs and mouth fill with a heavy mix of musty moist air, dust, sweat and the sweet acrid odor of jet exhaust. “Loads off 20, 15,10, 5, slings slack, loads clear”. I struggle to stand as the nose of the helicopter pitches down and the tail rises – the pilot is cowboying the ship away from the drop zone as fast as possible. I listen for the sounds and feel for the vibrations that I’ve memorized over that past few months that tell me everything is running the way it should be. The intercom crackles with seemingly unintelligible phrases causing the door gunners to quickly begin squeezing off long bursts from their M60 machine guns - sweeping the canopy of green that is disappearing all too slowly below. As I move toward the back of the ship the noise level changes. I whirl to face the pocket of silence as my helmet fills with a low moan from the earphones and I watch my crew chief slump to the metal flooring.
            Somehow I’m suddenly on the floor beside him; his helmet’s rolling across the pitching floor and his head is in my lap. My hands are pressed against his body trying to hold his life inside. The helicopter pitches rolls and climbs in evasive maneuvers. He squeezes my hand for a few seconds, as our eyes stay riveted on each other’s. We have no words to say. Then as the ship steadies his grip begins to fail and an eerie stillness engulfs us.

            I see it, I feel it, I hear it, I smell it and I taste it all now, over 40 years later, just like it happened a second ago.
            I have a letter of appreciation from the department of the army, signed by the president of the United States – like so many others have.
            I have an army commendation medal, an air medal and a Viet Nam service ribbon - like so many others have.
            I lost a very close friend in war – like so many others have.

            At 20 years old I lost my invincibility, my naiveté, and my trust in the longevity and value of close relationships.

            At 50 I was still struggling to rebuild that trust, to relearn the skills, and to be viable part of valued friendship.

            At 60 nothing has changed, I close my eyes and it all rushes back just like it was yesterday…

The words and art are mine as are the memories... Load's Clear...

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fallen Soldier

Memorial Day is coming soon, those that know me, know my passion for patriotism, for my fellow service men and women - from all generations. I discovered this poem a few years back and have chosen to post it here as a first remembrance. The author is unknown, however with words so well selected I'd like to think he or she was a fellow veteran. Enuf said...

Fallen Soldier All Alone

Fallen soldier far from home.

Trickling down his face a tear,

forgetting how it feels to fear

death and all its fate and glory.

Now it’s here, no need to worry.

Fallen soldier waiting for the end

Fallen soldier far from home

He’s one of those they’ll all forget;

but he’s the one thing you should never forget.

The life he lived, the goals he set,

the ones he loved, the ones who wait

to see his nearly forgotten face.

Fallen soldier all alone

Fallen soldier far from home

Now breathing’s just a waste of breath

and living’s just a waste of death

as he searches for a new address;

a brand new home free of loneliness.

Fallen soldier all alone

Fallen soldier far from home

Lying motionless on the ground,

the battle raging all around.

For now he is not all alone.

This fallen soldier is welcomed home.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Happy Mother’s Day Mom!

A few years ago I was challenged with writing my mother’s eulogy. Not necessarily a daunting task, after all I had 60+ years of experiences, anecdotes and stories to draw from. As I started to pull a few things together a dear friend made a suggestion that I eventually followed. I decided to print the full version here in honor of Mother’s Day and my mother.

          I could spend time relating a few stories from growing up around my mom. Most would be very similar to the experiences you have had; scrambling to get dozens of cookies decorated for home room holiday parties in grade school, the time that she gave to the PTA and how disconcerting it was to have your mother on a first name basis with the principal of your school, the dozens of baseball games she kept score at, hundreds of trips to football or baseball or scouts that the old station wagon was packed with kids, the high school activities and dances she helped chaperone, the extra effort she had to give to my twin brother when he was diagnosed with diabetes and later on the letters that came like clockwork while I was in the Army – she kept mine neatly bundled up near the bottom of her cedar chest.
          We all have stories to tell about growing up and then spending the holidays or joining the family gatherings as adults. Beyond that I have a more unique perspective about my mother than most might have. I chose to return home and spend time caring for her – much like she cared for my brothers and me.  I became responsible for paying the bills, doing the laundry, cooking dinner, making doctor’s appointments, keeping her safe and clean and warm. During those years her mental health deteriorated to the point where I was forced to place her in a full time care facility. But during the time we spent together prior to that I learned a great deal about her and our family.
          One of her daily rituals was to read the newspaper from front to back, keeping it neatly folded and placed beside her favorite chair when she was done. In the beginning I wasn’t sure how much she really understood and retained. Then during dinner she’d recount something she’d read that morning and how she felt about it. On good days we’d watch baseball or football games together. To my surprise she would know most of the player’s names and positions. Our conversations would drift to little league games that had happened decades before. She would always have this little smile and glint in her eyes as she spoke.
          Occasionally she’d drag out the old photo albums with pictures from “the farm” in Littleton where she grew up. She’d relate stories I’d heard my grandmother tell many years ago. The next time it would pictures of my dad’s family or our family. Always there would be some anecdote that would reveal a side of her or dad or my grandparents that I didn’t know existed. She was most proud of the ballooning pictures that documented the hundreds of flights that she helped crew for my twin brother. She didn’t fly with him that often but she’d talk about how much she loved to watch all of the balloons “glide into the blue”. Few people knew how much she feared for my brother’s safety and how it scared her so much.
          She loved going for a ride in the car after spending so much time in the house. We’d pick different routes to travel, passing by old landmarks that I hoped she would know or remember. Some she would recognize and how some had disappeared and had been replaced. She always marveled at the number of cars and people on the streets. “Where did they all come from? What do they all do?”
          Through all of those years I gained a new and different kind of respect for her. A new insight into what shaped her, her life and eventually mine. As the “good” days dwindled away it became harder for her. And the frustration she suffered was enormous. Eventually she couldn’t tell me my name but sometimes that wry little smile would appear and her eyes would light up again if only for a moment or two and she’d squeeze my hand or give me a hug.
          Below is the poem I’m Free – a framed copy of it appeared on her headboard not long after my dad passed away. She insisted on having it, a family portrait and a picture of my brother’s balloon with her when she moved into long term care. I never really understood the significance for her, but certainly if she could she would tell us not to grieve for her – because now she is free.


Don't grieve for me, for now I'm free
I'm following the path God has chosen for me.
I took His hand when I heard him call;
I turned my back and left it all.

I could not stay another day,
To laugh, to love, to work or play.
Tasks left undone must stay that way;
I've now found peace at the end of day.

If my parting has left a void,
Then fill it with remembered joys.
A friendship shared, a laugh, a kiss;
Oh yes, these things, I too will miss.
Be not burdened with times of sorrow
Look for the sunshine of tomorrow.

My life's been full, I savored much;
Good friends, good times, a loved one’s touch.
Perhaps my time seems all to brief;
Don't lengthen your pain with undue grief.
Lift up your heart and peace to thee,
God wanted me now-He set me free

           Take a few moments in the next few days and learn something new about your mom. If your opportunity has passed, like mine, rekindle a few choice memories and send her your smile...
Happy Mother’s Day Mom!