You’re In the Army Now!

I imagine that being married to a teacher is a lot like being drafted into the Army. Since I volunteered for every post I ever served at, those of you not married to a teacher are just going to have to take my word for it! My job description reads like a modern day, “Jack of All Trades!” I have served as a guest lecturer on many occasions—my favorite duty is teaching pre-kindergarten kids on board airplane procedures and jump commands of the Airborne. Nothing is quite so entertaining as seeing a bunch of four year olds doing the “Airborne Shuffle” and hearing them count to four while waiting for their chute to open! Teaching them how to properly shout a “Hooah” and stomp their feet in a military fashion is quite a lot of fun too!!

I have other duties as well. I am the class carpenter. I don’t believe there has ever been a summer vacation that has ever passed that I have not been called up from my “Inactive Reserve” status and brought in to make something or other for my wife’s classroom. Since this usually requires the judicious application of power tools and the production of massive piles of sawdust I find this duty to be a great deal of fun. If the project requires the purchase of yet more power tools it is even better!! You would be amazed how often you can misplace something as necessary as a chuck key for a drill. It seems every time I go to a hardware store I have to buy another one. Perhaps they hide with all the socks that everyone in the family loses??!! I don’t know. Even power tools can be “misplaced” from time to time. I know I have at least three routers and three jig saws—just in case! And since summer vacation is fast approaching I am ever hopeful that any new project will require a trip to the hardware store. I have been trying to figure out how I can work in the purchase of a thickness planer, band saw and stationary drill press but alas my fair spouse has resisted my best entreaties for these items. The fact that I could also use these to build the boat I have been wanting to build all these years could have something to do with her un-natural reluctance to green light these items. I remain ever optimistic however!!

Another of my classroom duties is class pumpkin carver for Halloween. Now, this rates high up there as far as a “Guy” chore. Where else can you use sharp knives and stab things,be a hero in the process and not get arrested!!!??? In fact it is darn near the perfect Man-skill! Here I am carving a “Ghost Cat” jack-o-lantern this past Halloween.

There is one activity that is thrust on us poor defenseless spouses of teachers and that is anything involving cutting things out with scissors.

“Oh Lord please help the poor husbands of teachers we humbly pray!”

Cutting stuff out for your espousa is pretty much the equivalent of peeling potatoes for KP in the Army. It is not a place you want to find yourself! Now, since my loving wife took off all of this last week—the week before the end of school mind you—to be there for me in Houston for my first steps I am now paying for my sins. My penance is cutting stuff out with scissors—lots and lots of stuff. Oh my! To think that there could possibly be so many items of interest to cut out and laminate for a Pre-K class!!! Now, I have heard some folks bandy about words like “hero” and “inspirational” but really I am just a lowly “Draftee” with a pair of scissors helping my wife make sure that everything is in order for graduation day! It is times like these that I long for the relative calm of the battlefield. Give me a clear field of fire and an advancing enemy any day over a pile of pictures, artwork, and a pair of scissors!!!!

Hardcore Harry

MAKE IT HAPPEN–MAKE IT REAL

There is a sign that hangs in my house that has a great deal of significance. It reads, “MAKE IT HAPPEN.” My wife and I bought the sign at the Buc-ees just outside of Houston on Highway 59 on May 10th after the initial assessment at the Amputee and Prosthetic Center. It has become the mantra which drives me forward in my goal to walk again. The phrase is also engraved on the back of a Saint Michael’s Medallion I wear, a gift from my wife Ginny. Saint Michael is the patron saint of paratroopers for those of you who are not in the know!

During the events of the last week, the phrase “Make it Happen” has served me well. The attention the event generated in the television media was exiting but it is important to keep everything in perspective and in proportion. Even now, it is hard to comprehend just where everything fits. I had an idea beforehand of the level of commitment that the folks at TMC Orthopedics and the Amputee and Prosthetic Center had to the amputee community. What I had not realized until later in the week was the degree that they had mobilized on my behalf. It was extremely humbling to find out that the turn around on my new legs had never before been achieved. It was only seventy-two hours from first fitting to final product. In order for this to happen it took a great many unnamed dedicated and professional individuals giving their all to see that my legs were ready on time. I am deeply moved by the level of effort that everyone put forward on my behalf. From Joe Sansone the CEO of TMC Orthopedic to the technicians at the Amputee and Prosthetic Center, you all simply rock! It was with a heavy heart that we left Houston this week for our journey home, we have made new friends and acquired a new branch of our family so to speak!

Getting the legs was the easy part, learning to use them is where the real work for me begins. This is where the sense of perspective and proportion will come in handy. It occurred to me that the catchwords, “Make It Happen” that have carried me thus far on this journey need a re-clarification of sorts to bring them up to date. Now it is time for me to make real on my dreams to walk again. Cameras and reporters do not make things like this happen. These happen because of what is in your heart. The path before me is clear and my success or failure is all up to me from here on.

MAKE IT HAPPEN—MAKE IT REAL!

Hardcore Harry

“Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

The great comedy troupe Monty Python is wildly famous for its zany off-beat British humor.  One of the zaniest spoofs was a series  sketches titled “The Spanish Inquisition.”  Who could ever forget the high-pitched shrill phrase, “Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!”  once they have heard it at least once. If you are a true Monty Python fan you don’t just experience the Monty Python sketches just once! No, you take them and adopt them as part of your daily life.

Case in point: I remember one Christmas holiday some years back while visiting my sister Robin in Southern California. It was during this particular Christmas holiday that my brother-in-law Chris and I took to  (re)watching (and reciting in the process) all of the Monty Python classics. It just so happened that my young niece Nicole who had just turned six was also particularly smitten with many of the comedy skits and movies that we were viewing during this post Christmas Monty Python Marathon. She was so smitten in fact that she began reciting many of her favorite lines. It was all fun and laughs, that is until the angelic Nicole returned to school after the Christmas break and she promptly began reciting one liners from Monty Python and the The Holy Grail. In no time her teacher called my sister horrified and requested a family conference immediately. Apparently repeating such classics like: “I unplug my nose in your general direction!”  and, “I wave my private parts at your aunties!” were not received with universal acclaim that one would expect in a classroom of six year olds!!! Go figure!

(Grin)
So, where was I? Oh yes! “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” One would think that for such a momentous occasion as taking one’s first steps after twenty-seven years that the Spanish Inquisition would take a holiday? Apparently not! No, the Spanish Inquisition is alive and well and its Inquisitor General is none other than Prosthetist Ben Falls of the Amputee and Prosthetic Center in Houston, Texas!!! What proof do I have you ask? Lets compare the photographic evidence. Here is a picture of the most infamous Inquisitor General of all, Tomás de Torquemada, the fifteenth century Dominican friar and original leader of the Spanish Inquisition

Inquisitor General, Tomás de Torquemada (Wikipedia)

Now, here is a Top Secret-For Your Eyes Only photograph of Ben Falls taken by one of our covert operatives at Grand Inquisitor Falls’ top secret hideout. (Note of the latest high technology torture devices in the foreground–the very latest in up-to-date devices used by the New Spanish Inquisition!):

Is it a coincidence that both men–even though these pictures were obtained centuries apart–have receeding hair lines? I think not!!!!

Moreover, what is even more sinsiter is the previosly unknown fact that Ben Falls was in his youth was a Dang Hippie!!! And, what is even worse is that Ben is a Reformed Danged Hippie!!

Here I am attempting to run for my life at the blistering pace of 1 meter per minute upon learning that the Spanish Inquisition has chosen me as its next victim:

Try as I might, I can never get more than an arms reach from the leader of the Spanish Inquisition! Exhausted and dejected I take a seat to rest and come up with a new plan to combat the Inquisitors.

Lastly, here is Inquisitor Ben’s toady, Nick, to adminsiter the last rites of the damned! “Shoulders straight!” they say. “Hips back!” “Stand up!” “Initiate Swing Phase!” Moreover, they have programmed my wife and kids to recite their entreaties and prayerful chants!

“Nobody Expects the Spanish Iquisition!”

Bugger!!!

Hardcore Harry

Book of Firsts

 We humans are prone to celebrate and commemorate a great many firsts in our lives. First off, we define ourselves by the date we entered the world from our mother’s womb. This is only the beginning. After that we have our first teeth;  first words;  first baby steps;  and our first day of school. Add to that any number of firsts: our first kiss;  first car; first true love; and who can ever  forget the birth of his or her first child? As a paratrooper I will always remember my first jump, every one of my “First” Sergeants, and I will always remember my first and only time in combat–it forever changed my life. As a result, the first anniversary of surviving the wounds I sustained in combat was just as important as any birthday I have ever celebrated. The date October 27th, 1983 is forever burned in my memory and not a one passes that I do not give thanks for having lived to see a new one! Now I can add the date May 24th, 2010, to my Book of Firsts.

Today I took the first steps in nearly 26 and 1/2 years! Before that I had the delicious  pleasure of buying my first pair of shoes in 26 and 1/2 years as well. I cannot tell you the giddiness that accompanies setting  a course toward the shoe isle at Academy Sports and ACTUALLY having a bona fide reason to be there other than to wait on one of my family members to pick out their latest pair of shoes!!! Talk about a (RE)defining moment in a life!!! There I was, caught up in the moment actually taking great care again to pick out a pair of shoes that defines me! (Mental checklist: something rugged, practical, lightweight. A manly man shoe if it exists. Thank you very much please!) Here I am sporting a pair of Reebok DMX Voyage Walking Shoes Size 8–this is two and a half to three sizes smaller than I used to wear all those years back but a convincing argument was made that a smaller shoe weighs a lot less and any weight saved when walking with artificial legs is a GOOD thing!!

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! A manly man shoe suitable to carry the author aloft on his new mission to once again walk upright!

Shortly after docking the aforementioned manly manifesting, leather clad, mobile transport enhancing footwear to my computer enhanced robotic legs I am ready to get started on this business on being upright, vertical, and in motion! They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I know that whoever made up this maxim knew damn well what he or she was saying. The moment that I first laid eyes on my new Otto Bock C-Legs I saw a beautiful functional work of art!

Here I, Hardcore Harry, begin again learning the art of walking upright. No more will I define myself by my reclined state! I feel just like a pioneer setting out into the vast unknown wilderness, not knowing what future awaits me but I know I will engage that future fearlessly and with the utmost resolve. I am a US Army Airborne Paratrooper. Surrender is not in my creed!

Happiness Defined Airborne Style: Determination in Action!

HOOAHHH!!!

Hardcore Harry

Blood on the Risers

 Ask any paratrooper who has ever served in any airborne unit and the chances are they will know the song “Blood on the Risers.” The song lovingly embraces a sort of sick twisted sense of fatalistic humor that is fairly unique to the Airborne trooper. There I was on the Island of Grenada, on my back on the floor in a bloody state of disassembly and this verse to “Blood on the Risers” sort of pops into my mind:

There was blood upon the risers, there were brains upon the chute,
Intestines were a’dangling from his Paratrooper suit,
He was a mess; they picked him up, and poured him from his boots,
And he ain’t gonna jump no more!

It would be funny if it did not hurt so damned much I remember thinking. For a paratrooper, the worst fate that you can suffer is to not be able to jump again. Back then they used to tell us that there were only two ways to leave the 82nd Airborne Division: PCS (permanent change of station) or die–none of us much liked either option!!

Not being able to jump again was a fate almost worse than death to us. I accept that we airborne types are/were not what one would consider normal—maybe it was the result of landing too many times on our head! Perhaps.

Retelling war stories and experiences are funny things. It is like you get this stock story that you can retell it without thinking. It is like engaging a war-story autopilot. You hear yourself retelling some of the most intense feelings and experiences that you have ever or will ever face with a near monotone matter-of-fact regularity. I am sometimes amazed that my audience finds some of the things I have to relate interesting. at all. Perhaps it is the curse of retelling the same static incident literally thousands of times over the years. All the time you have to be mindful of your audience. I have worked out various levels of my story over the years rated G to XXX. It all depends. Even when you tell the most extremely graphic detailed versions you wonder if there is ever really any way that something like this can be put to words and even if it could how can you be sure that your audience can even begin to understand it.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of the events that took place of the afternoon of October 27, 1983. Some parts of the story will forever belong to those of us who were there and will never be retold. How do you relate the incomprehensible bloody brutality of war in a sane way? I haven’t found a way yet.

What I know and remember is this: I was hit by the 20 millimeter cannons fired by the A7 Corsair. My right leg below the knee was missing and perhaps 4 or so inches of my right shin bone shone eerily white against the blood that was gathering everywhere about me. I remember looking for my right boot. For a time I could not find it and thought that it must have been destroyed, that is, until I felt something over by my right ear. It was my boot, still perfectly bloused in my Corcoran Jump Boot and the boot was still sporting a decent spit-shine!. Strangely, I took comfort that even in the face of destruction, I was able to relish in this bit of military precision. At least some part of me was in uniform!

My left leg was totally shattered from well above the knee. It was pretty obvious to me that there was no way that the doctors were going to be able to save my legs—providing I could get medical attention. Also, I did not know it yet, but I had also taken internal injuries that would eventually necessitate the removal of half of my small intestine. The pain was overwhelmingly immense.

I remember a conversation that I had once had  at a Denny’s in Sharon Pennsylvania with a bunch of friends while on leave after watching the first Rambo movie—back when Stallone was still a cool dude and before he had made a bunch of hack rehashed sequels to his hit movies. Somewhere in the conversation we tried to determine what the worst pain a human being could experience. Somewhere in the debate this girl, Amy, announces that the worst pain that a human being could experience is childbirth. Well, s**t! None of us guys had any counter to that so she wins the debate hands down!!! A year later as I lay bleeding on that cement floor in that barracks I came to the realization that I’d like to have triplets instead!!!!! It was only years later that I would see Amy again and inform her that she was nearly my dying thoughts!

I can look back now and laugh at this but then it was not a great deal of fun any way you looked at it!

I can also look back and I can categorically state that even then I was wrong. Losing a limb(s) is not the worst pain that you can experience. The most painful thing that a human being can experience is the feeling of regret. To regret that you did not do something when you know know you should have/could have/ought-to-have is far more painful than merely losing a piece of one’s anatomy. I sincerely mean this with the utmost of conviction.

This is why tomorrow, May 24, 2010 that I will begin the process of learning to walk again—roughly 26 ½ years after having lost both of my legs above the knee that day in Grenada. How I came to this fortuitous point at this stage in my life is a story unto itself that I hope to relate fully at a later stage in this blog. A few years ago, this would not have even been technologically possible. To not try given the opportunity, would be to open the door to the possibility of the mother of all regrets and this I cannot allow to happen.

It all begins again tomorrow. Along the way I will hopefully fill in the enormous gaps in on this tale that deserve a retelling. I owe my very existence to a great many courageous and talented people who refused to give up on me even when the chance at survival was at its most grim. So here I am, caught in the past with what has been and on the threshold of the future of what will be.

Stick around, things are about to get interesting. I promise!

Hardcore Harry

“All Come Tumblin Down” Urgent Fury Part III

Service in the Second Brigade TOC (Tactical Operations Center) was a constant staccato of radio transmissions and updates from units of the 82nd Airborne punctuated by very brief moments between missions where we were able to catch our breath. The pace of action was wholly different from a line battery but very much like serving in my very first assignment in the 82nd Airborne with the Battalion FDC (Fire Direction Center). The TOC was the nerve center or “brains” of the brigade and everything that happened was approved through the TOC or was communicated directly through us. The TOC also had an Air Force Forward Air Controller team stationed along side of us paratroopers as well as a Marine Anglico (Air Naval Gunfire) team responsible for calling in Naval air strikes and/or naval gunfire support. All in all there were 25 of us and we were responsible for all of the air, artillery, and naval assets supporting the 82nd Airborne Division and the two US Army Ranger Battalions on the southern part of the island near Point Salines Airfield.

The combined arms battlefield was still in its infancy and there were still a lot of kinks to be worked out of the system. The most glaring problem was the radios themselves. There was no way for the Army to talk to the Navy or Marines without an Anglico Team on site and visa versa. This caused a great deal of confusion early on and this would ultimately lead to a tragic miscommunication on the afternoon of the 27th of October that would change my life forever.

Mid-morning on the 27th the TOC moved its operations to Calliste Barracks that had been captured in the previous day’s fighting. Calliste Barracks was north and east of Salines Airfield and it occupied a wonderful bit of high ground on a ridge that overlooked the airfield and the surrounding countryside. Our Cuban and communist adversaries fancied this ramshackle bit of 2X4 and 3/4inch pine clad walls and galvanized tin roof structure as a barracks; but, it was a far cry from even the most basic accommodations in the United States military. I imagine our Air Force partners in the TOC must have thought it was quite a dreadful bit of slumming around compared to their country club barracks back in the States! For us paratrooper it was dry and a nice change from the rocks and dirt that we had been been staying in since we landed. Visually, it was still a third-world s**thole. It was home for now!

If you will allow, I will highlight the difference between the different service branches with an illustrative vignette. There is a cartoon that was circulating around that pretty much sums up the US military and its relative outlook on what constitutes suitable living quarters that I remember seeing some time back. Basically it involves a horrendous thunderstorm and the first scene has an Air Force airman in his barracks with the TV remote in his hand. The thunderstorm has just knocked out the cable reception of his TV. As the storm rages in the background the airman says, “Man, this sucks! The cable has gone out!”

The next scene has a US Army leg (non-airborne) infantryman in a muddy foxhole enduring the same storm. The GI says dejectedly as the lightning crashes and the rain pours down, “Man, this sucks!”

Now, take that same storm and move on to the scene with an 82nd Airborne paratrooper in the same mud-filled foxhole with the same storm raging late into the night. The paratrooper says with a maniacal grin sprouting across his unshaved face, “Man, I like the way this sucks!”

Lastly, we move on to a similar foxhole with a US Army Ranger. The Ranger looks about disappointingly as the thunder and lightning crash all around and the foxhole fills with muddy water. The Ranger sighs and says in a disappointed tone, “Man, I wish this would suck some more!”

There is a poster of an 82nd Airborne trooper that you often see that pretty much highlights this same thing to some degree. I know, I used to keep a full sized copy in my room above my bed in the barracks. It shows an 82nd trooper during the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944. Here is a copy of it:

Anyway, back to the battle!

As I stated earlier, the TOC had approval and coordinated all fire missions and indirect support for our sector of the island. Mid afternoon on the 27th the TOC did just that by coordinating airstrikes and artillery preparatory fire for the Rangers assault on one of the last enemy strongholds on the island. As you can see from this picture, the level of destruction would have made it considerably uncomfortable for any holdouts still bent on “dying for the glorious Communist Revolution.” We were only too happy to oblige them in this quest!!

Calvigny Barracks H-Hour bombardment

(http://www.pbase.com/olyinaz/image/102038798)

It was towards the end of this mission that we started taking enemy fire from our front from the hamlets of Ruth Howard, Sugar Mill, and the village of Frequente. There was a drive-in theater nearby and an enemy motor pool that we had captured earlier with a few BTR 60 armored personnel carriers. The “Battle of the Drive-in” would become one of the last engagements where we engaged the enemy. It was during this battle that one of the US Navy A7 Corsairs from the USS Independence would break off from its previous station over the Calvigny Barracks to the east and come in low, fast and level with our position and strafe us with 20 mm cannon fire. I would find out later that the Marine Anglico team had called in the air strike on the enemy that was firing to our front. The strike was 600 meters off and 17 out of 25 members of the TOC were hit.

Right then I did not know this. I could see that myself and Specialist Sean Luketina were badly injured. Further up the barracks Sgt Joey Stewart was hit hit really badly as well. I knew three things right then. Number one, I was in a great deal of pain. I have heard it told and often repeated that when someone if injured really severely that that person does not feel pain. I can only assume whoever made this lie up had never really been injured because the pain was immense! Number two: I was thirsty–very, very thirsty. I could not believe that it would be possible to be that thirsty. I was losing a lot of blood fast. Lastly, My legs were gone. If I survived this my life would be forever different. Right now I wanted two things, something to drink and morphine. I would deal with the missing legs later….if I survived.

Hardcore Harry

D-Day Grenada–Urgent Fury Part II

October 25th 1983–Point Salines, Grenada 

They had always told us that a C141 Starlifter could hold 120 combat equipped paratroopers. Whoever had made up this Airborne maxim must have had a sick sense of humor!!  By the time one hundred and twenty paratroopers and their equipment were aboard there was literally not enough room to wiggle your big toe! I have never been in such a cramped and confined space before or since is all I have to say. To top this sleigh ride off we had the auspicious task of donning our parachutes on and off not just once but FOUR flippin times in-flight!!!!! There was a great deal of confusion as to whether the airfield at Point Salines was secure or not. The US Army Rangers had dropped into Point Salines Airfield at first light on the morning of the 25th and we paratroopers were set to do the same. Perhaps this was designed to get us in the mood to kill something. I DO know that by the time our plane load air-landed we were mad as hell to be landing in that bird and to be denied the one thing that all paratroopers most long for–a combat jump!

We were fit to be tied by the time we got on the ground and ready to kill the first offending life form that got in our way. We were angry as hell, we were on the ground  in the late afternoon of the 25th of October and we had not arrived under a parachute canopy.  I really pitied any opposition that got in our way because we would make them pay dearly for our sissified method of entry onto the battlefield!

No one gave the order to dig in, the fact that tracers were flying overhead was enough to set everyone scraping out a firing position in the rock infested soil at the far southeast portion of the airfield where we had taken up positions.  It was then that the endless months of training paid off. Dig in, stay down wait for orders! Badda boom! Badda bing!

The Grenadian militia and their Cuban allies put on a fantastic show of what not to do on a battlefield. The OH-6 LOACH (Light observation helicopters) would swoop in at treetop level and sure enough a stream of tracers would follow well behind their wake.

OH-6 Cayuse (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OH-6_Cayuse)

It was then that the Marine AH-1  Cobra Gunships would pop up from their positions just offshore and a stream of 2.75 inch rockets would come raining down on the fool who had dared to fire.

UH-1 Cobra Gunship Grenada (http://www.guncopter.com/photos/cobra-grenada-photo.php)

We had front row seats to this vicarious display of stupidity on the part of the Grenadian and Cubans and the awesome retaliatory response by the Cobra gunships! We had seen these weapon’s platforms in action many times during Capex Exercises (Capability Exercises) and during training demonstrations. This was the first time that we were to witness the destructive force of these marvelous birds in combat. The only thing missing in all of this was the popcorn popper!

It was not until the next morning that  our guns had arrived from Fort Bragg. It was not long after daybreak when the 105 millimeter guns of C battery were brought into action to support the attack on the radio station on Grenada. The bark of those howitzers was music to the ears of us airborne artillerymen of Divarty (Division Artillery). It meant that we had ceased being spectators and had become the spectacle! Laying steel on target is the stuff of artillerymen dreams!

M102 105mm howitzer in action (http://www.pbase.com/olyinaz/image/102038825)

In addition to the artillery being brought to bear on our first target the A7 Corsairs from the USS Independence were making strafing runs with their 20 millimeter cannons on the enemy positions.

A7E over Point Salines Airfield 1983 (http://www.pbase.com/olyinaz/image/123376722)

One only needed to watch the A7s come in at a dive to understand the full destructive capability of these 20mm cannons. The recoil from the cannons would seemingly bring these aricraft to a full stall in the four-five second bursts from the cannons. It did not take long before the resistance holed up at the radio station gave up rather than be subjected to the combined destructive force of an air and artillery barrage.

It was shortly after this first fire mission that I was approached by our battalion sergeant-major, Sgt. Maj. Dameron. Sgt. Major Dameron was African-American and unusually tall and lanky for a paratroop NCO. Paratrooper NCOs were generally short and fiery “pit-bulldog” stock from my experience in the Airborne. Even though Sergeant Major Dameron  far exceeded the height requirements of the Airborne NCO Corps, he was was not lacking in the requisite paratroop tenacity. He was a good Sergeant Major and we all looked up to him in more ways than one!

Sgt. Maj. Dameron informed me that the Second Brigade TOC was in need of a fire direction qualified individual to help manage the targets in our sector of the island. It was this transfer that would play a pivotal role in what would happen in my life over the next two days.

I remember arriving at the TOC and I was put straight to work plotting primary, secondary, and tertiary targets. I found it more than a bit un-nerving and just a tad comical that the map we were using was a xeroxed tourist map with a military grid system overlay. My first target to plot?

The Soviet Embassy.

“OK,” I thought, “Lets hope we don’t ever have to call this one in!” If so, it would mean the s**t had REALLY hit the fan!

Hardcore Harry

Operation Urgent Fury, Grenada, October 1983—Part 1

 October 24, 1983

There I was watching Monday night football and getting my hair cut by Komstock our barracks barber. Komstock had this very robust laugh that reminded you of the comedic portrayal of a caricature of a Soviet officer. Heck, he even looks the part! I suppose this shouldn’t be such a far fetched thing considering that Comstock’s grandparents had emigrated to the United States from the Ukraine. As an added bonus, Comtock was a barber by profession before he entered the Army. He did a much better job than most of the barbers on post for a fraction of the cost. I mean, where else could a trooper get his haircut while watching football and drinking a beer?!

Times were good in Alpha Battery, 1/320th Airborne Field Artillery of the 82nd Airborne Division. We had just finished our annual Artep (Army Training Evaluation Program) and we had done extremely well. However, something was up and we could all sense it. The Marine Barracks in Beirut had been bombed the day before. Our unit was part of the Division Ready Brigade and there was a sense of urgency in the air. There was also a great deal of increased traffic on post. Something was going to happen–we knew it, but when?

 It is hard to describe life in the 82nd Airborne Division to the uninitiated. It is part of the United States Army but it is in many respects an army unto itself. I suppose you could say that the division has its own identity, traditions, and history separate and unique in many respects to the rest of the Army. As paratroopers we prided ourselves on our training and our mission to be anywhere in the world within eighteen hours.

I remember being across Ardenne’s road many months before I had been transferred to A battery at the barber there and one of the older African-American barbers said to one of the other barbers while pointing across the road to the Division area, “Them boys across the road pray for a war every day.” I would say that this gentleman was most certainly correct in his pronouncement but I also suspect he did not have the first clue why he was right. Life in Division was a constant series of training exercises one after another. Many of us troopers prayed for a war, but, only to bring an end to the monotony of the training! In an elite unit like the 82nd Airborne they kept us wound tight so as to keep us ready to fight at a moment’s notice.

The CQ (Charge of Quarters) knocked on the door. The time had come to put it all to the test! Fall out with full combat issue! We did not find out for several more hours where we were going, most of us assumed then it would be Lebanon.

First Sergeant Graves, myself and several troopers were picked from Alpha Battery to fill in manpower shortages for Charlie Battery. We were the support elements for the 325th Infantry of the Second Brigade. It was only later on that evening that we were to be briefed on the mission objective. It would not be Lebanon, it would be the Caribbean Island of Grenada. I had only heard about the situation on Grenada a few weeks before when one of my good friends, Tom Ramirez, who was with the Headquarters Battery Survey section showed me a copy of his Newsweek just before he was to ETS out of Division. Tom was always keen to keep up on the latest news and happenings. He remarks that this was an area that we ought to watch out for. I remember the article showing a Russian engineer advisor who was helping the Grenadians and Cubans build the 10,000 foot airstrip on the island. Meh! He hardly looked like a threat in his unbuttoned shirt exposing his enormous belly holding a beer I thought!

Things had changed however. A few days before the Prime Minister of Grenada, his wife and several cabinet ministers and many supporters had been massacred. The communist-controlled government that took over then did what would be perhaps the stupidest thing imaginable. They declared a 24 hour shoot on sight curfew on the island. This was all the excuse that President Ronald Reagan needed. There were several hundred American medical students on the island. The memory of the Iran Hostage Crisis was still a recent memory for most Americans. President Reagan was determined to not see a repeat of this. If in the process of rescuing the students we just happened to restore democratic government to the island, so be it!

 This would be the first test of the United States Armed forces since the Vietnam War. The name of the mission was to be Operation Urgent Fury. It was a lovely un-politically correct and decidedly old school name!!!

Hardcore Harry

First Sergeants I Have Known

You can ask anyone who has served at least one term of enlistment in the United States Army who it is they remember most and invariably they will name one person: their First Sergeant. I don’t care who you are,. I don’t care where or when you served. The First Sergeant IS the core of the United States Army. Call him “TOP, “ “Top Sergeant,” Top Soldier,” “Smoke,” “Top Asskicker,” “Top Kick,” or “Top Hat;” it does not matter. They are all just names for PERFECTION. The First Sergeant is your mommy, daddy and God Incarnate all rolled into one. Yes, they may give “command” of a line company or battery to an officer wearing Captain’s bars, but before we go any further lets get this straight: An officer may command but THE FIRST SERGEANT IS THE COMPANY! How he or she goes, so goeth the rest of the unit!!!

I look back now and I can honestly say that God has truly blessed me. I never had a bad First Sergeant. In fact, I am sure that there is probably no such thing as a BAD one. I am sure they must exist briefly from time to time but only for the time it takes for the Hand of God to reach down smite such a vile abomination from the face of this great and green earth!! God adores perfection and his most perfect mortal creation is the First Sergeant!

My very first “Top” Sergeant I remember quite fondly. I was seventeen years old when I began basic training and First Sergeant Hadden had probably spent more time in Army green than I had been alive—I kid you not!!! I still remember quite vividly the day we were introduced to First Sergeant Hadden. There were were, Alpha-Four-Three standing in formation in front of our barracks at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri during that morning in early May, 1980. Up strolls this most awesomely starched and creased sergeant who’s uniform was so stiff and perfect that you would swear it would deflect bullets and assorted projectiles up to and including all known species of artillery and probably a tactical nuclear missile or two! Up strolls First Sergeant Hadden. His very presence commanded the air of respect. His first words were: “Hello. My Name is First Sergeant Hadden, as in You-hadden-ought-to-do-it!” Do what you ask? It didn’t matter. If there was ever a question of whether you ought-to or ought-not-to be doing something you “hadden” ought to be doing whatever that was!! And, trust me when I tell you that he well and truly meant just that—as some in the basic training company were to find out to their deep and everlasting regret!

Top Hadden’s one pet peeve above all others was that no one–especially a lowly spec of human evolution like us trainees–were to step on his immaculately manicured grass. We trainees were not schooled properly in the virtues of paying attention to details enough to truly appreciate the quality lawn care–the velvet smooth grass was aligned in a most military dress-right-dress precision. Top Hadden was placed on this earth to teach us the why of lawn care we were to find out.

It was not long before one of us trainees were caught in First Sergeant Hadden’s lawn “Kill Zone” taking a “shortcut” across Top’s grass to make formation in time. Big mistake! BIG, BIG, BIG, MISTAKE! It was the First Sergeant’s response that was most peculiar many of us thought. Matter of fact-like, he summons the offending life form to the front of the company and announces that he has won the privilege to mow and maintain the company lawn that weekend. What? No yelling? No screaming a half-an-inch from your face? No push ups? What was this blasphemy??? Many of us would come to fear this quiet, calm, and casual disarming approach;because, as we were to discover, a storm was brewing and none of us had any idea of the magnitude of destruction. I know now that Mother Nature Weeps at the insane fury of a storm of this kind that a First Sergeant can summon. Hurricane’s and tornado’s are mere child’s play to what awaited this young private that Saturday morning.

There we were the following Saturday morning and the condemned is called before the company. The First Sergeant informs the guilty private that he wants his grass mowed ASAP and to get started. Sure enough, the private snaps to and rushes about looking for the lawn mower. Come to think of it, none of us had seen the lawn mower either!

Did I mention that First Sergeant’s could also be insanely diabolical? Well, it turns out this is one of their “higher order” OLD TESTAMENT type skills that are personally taught by the Lord Jehovah himself at the First Sergeant’s Academy.

So, there we have the company in formation, the First Sergeant standing there at its head having given the order to have the grass mowed. I don’t remember how long it took but I do remember it was not very long before the offending private reported back to TOP to find out where the lawn mower and gas can were. When First Sergeant Hadden reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of scissors no one, I mean no one was expecting this! You could hear a collective groan come from the assembled company followed by sighs of relief that it was not one of us who were going to have to cut Top’s grass with a pair of scissors!

Did it get done? You bet it did! And, the spectacle of that poor private on his hands and knees cutting the grass with a pair of scissors served as a more than ample warning that you did not EVER want to get caught on the wrong end of a conflict with a First Sergeant!

As I said before, I never served under a bad First Sergeant. They just did not exist in the 82nd Airborne. Even though my first experience with a Top Sergeant when I was fresh out of jump school at Fort Benning involved a great many push ups, I still loved him for it! First Sergeant Crawford would go on to become the Division Inspector’s General Sergeant Major but while he was still our Top Sergeant he performed with perfection his role as the soul of our unit and the guiding force behind our junior non-commissioned officers.

One of the more colorful First Sergeant’s we ever had was Top Johnson. Top Johnson was fond of two things, soul food and lecturing the battery (company). He used to talk in his slow Southern drawl and you can bet he meant every damned word he uttered. I remember one lecture in particular. The night before a couple troopers had watched some marshal arts movies and had a beer drinking-fest in the day room. They then decided to practice their Kung Fu moves on the latrine stall doors. Top Johnson stood up there in front of the unit and his lecture went something like this:

Headquarters Battery, now I know that sum you all like goin drinkin dat IGNORALL. You drink dat Ignorall den watch dem Kung fu movies den tink you Bruce Lee and s**t and go practicin dem Karate moves on my latrine stall doors (pause) I got sumtin for joo! When I catch joo Kung Fu heros Jo are gonna be on S**thouse partol for a month. (pause) Maybe longer. I ain’t quite decided myself yet. Don’t joo dare doubt me. I will catch joo heroes and joo will suffer!”

Do I make myself understood?!!”

Yes, First Sergeant!” The Battery responded.

Top Johnson caught the Kung Fu culprits and they did perform “S**thouse Partol” for a solid month. This duty consisted of having to wear an equipment belt with scouring pads, brushes, and comet cleanser and whatnot and carry around a toilet plunger at right shoulder arms!! Their duty was to maintain their duty post in a pristine environment. If someone used the urinals, they had to be there Johnny on the Spot right afterwards scrubbing up. If the toilets were clogged—as they often were in the barracks several times a day—our Kung-Fu heroes had to unclog them! You know, I sincerely doubt the mess hall was as clean as those latrines were for that month that these two were pulling this duty!!

Of all the Top Sergeants I ever served under, the best was by far First Sergeant Gordon Graves. (The following pictures of Top Graves appear in the 82nd Airborne Division 40th Anniversary Yearbook that was published in 1982).

Top Graves was the First Sergeant for A Battery, 1/320th Airborne Field Artillery of the 82nd Airborne Division. He was from Mule Shoe, Texas and he loved everything about the the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys—I do mean everything! Top Graves was a veteran of Vietnam and had served with multiple units there including the 4th Infantry Division and the famed 173rd Airborne Brigade. He only stood about five foot six or so inches tall and you would swear that his shoulders were double that. He was built like a tank. It was impossible to mistake him approaching with his bulldog like build. Us troopers had a secret nickname for him because of this. We called him “Spike.” I don’t think there was anyone who was ever so foolish as to let him hear them calling him this though! He was TOP and we loved him more than a father.

As a First Sergeant, Top Graves was in his element as an administrator (as are all 1st Sgts) as anything. Paperwork was and still as much a part of the duties of a First Sergeant. Here is a picture of TOP at his desk. Top Graves was famous for his innovative displays of manifesting his temper. More than once a phone like you see in this picture would be sent crashing into the brick wall. I recall one such incident after Top getting a call from the Division IG (Inspector General) that some weeniefied trooper had issued some kind of formal complaint at Division HQ. Top Graves hung up, picked the phone up, while speaking a great many unmentionable words and sent the phone crashing against the wall of his office. Then, he calmly goes next door to the Supply Sergeant notifies him that he needs a new phone issued right away and a Statement of Charges for the now defunct former phone! We thought the world of Top, but, you DID NOT want to get on his bad side! Ever!

As I mentioned before, the First Sergeant was a huge fan of the Dallas Cowboys. Did I say huge? I meant HUGE!!! During football season we knew that if the Dallas Cowboys had won their game that week that PT (Physical Training) would be a breeze. It meant that Top was in a good mood and would take it easy on us. Now, if the Cowboys had lost the previous Sunday, Heaven help us! Top would make it his mission to take it out on us! I would like to point out that we troopers were not passive victims in this punishment by any means.! If anything we would make Top push us even harder. So there we would be knocking out push-ups and someone would yell out, “How bout them Redskins Top?”

Extra Push-ups!

Danny White wears pantyhose!” was a favorite put down.

More pushups!

The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders are Lesbians!”

Top Graves would growl in defiance and then yet more PT would be administered!

We loved it and we loved him.

When the battalion was called out to support the Second Brigade’s deployment to the Island of Grenada on October 25, 1983. I followed Top Graves to Charlie Battery of our battalion to fill some manpower shortages. Top Graves was sent to fill in for the Charlie Battery First Sgt who had a broken foot from a parachute jump a short while earlier. I could think of no better man to lead us into battle. Top Graves was everything an NCO should be and then some. I cant tell you how proud I was when I was asked to be part of the security team that rode with Top Graves on his jeep on the second day of the fighting.

The most special memory I have of First Sergeant Graves was about ten minutes before I was shot and nearly lost my life. I remember Top coming around and just visiting with the troops and I remember him coming up to me as I was kneeling down working a field radio and he reached out and patted me on the helmet and told me that I was a good trooper.

That kind of an affirmation coming from that man nearly became the last memory I would have on this earth. As it is now, it is one of my most treasured memories. This was made even more special when seven months later when I had my retirement ceremony in front of the battery that Top Graves still led. Top and I talked about that moment then and I found out that he too remembered it is as well and how much it meant to him that I had survived the attack. Great leaders like First Sergeant Graves are what makes the Airborne so special and such a dominating force on the field of battle. All the Way, First Sergeant Airborne!

Hardcore Harry

Silver Wings

Silver wings upon their chest
These are men, America’s best….”

SSGT. BARRY SADLER – The Ballad Of The Green Berets

    When Sgt. Sadler wrote “The Ballad of the Green Berets” in 1966, he was recuperating from wounds received in action as a Special Forces Medic in Vietnam. Outside of the U. S. Army’s Special Forces community he was unknown. After the song was released and especially when it made the title track for John Wayne’s movie The Green Berets that was released two years later, Staff Sergeant Sadler became a living legend. I have always thought it was an outstanding accomplishment that a dogface trooper knocked Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking” from her number one position on the charts.

 Although I was only four years old at the time that Staff Sergeant Sadler released his song–and certainly far too young by at least a year or two to truly appreciate what an absolute babe Nancy Sinatra was in those amazing boots…all of a sudden I have this premonition and I am thinking the less I say about Ms. Sinatra and her boots the better as my darling wife will be reading this! Anyway, where was I? Oh yes! I was far too young to truly appreciate the significance of the lyrics  as written and composed by the legendary Barry Sadler. It was only when I was older that I came to truly comprehend it all.

    Thinking back, I suppose it was the 1977 movie A Bridge Too Far that was based upon Cornelius Ryan’s best selling book of the same name that truly decided my future for me. The book and movie chronicled the failed Operation Market Garden of World War II and the massive Allied paratroop drops to seize the Rhine River bridges into Germany. I reckon it was probably also a blessing, even if I did not know it at the time, that most Americans were truly ignorant of the political bias of many Hollywood stars or I would not have thought so highly of Robert Redford’s portrayal of Major Julian Cook who led the daring daylight crossing of the river with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division at Nijmegan Bridge during Operation Market Garden. Nevertheless, it certainly was not Robert Redford who inspired me, it was the giant of a paratrooper whom he pretended to be!!!

Fastforward, and there I was a member of the last jump school class of 1981 at Fort Benning, Georgia. I should have been part of the class before that; but, I had to my shame failed the very first–and only–PT test I would ever fail in the army—I had failed because I had a severe case of shin splints that made it impossible to finish the two mile run fast enough. (In combat boots I might ought to point out! This was still old school PT.) I was completely devastated and a broken young man. As they marched us away to be recycled for the next class I thought my career was over for good. All my dreams and ambitions lay in tatters on that parade field. It was an Airborne sergeant who’s name I forget who led us away that morning. I owe everything that I was to become to that man. It was he who instilled in me a sense of proportion that I had not until that time considered. He lectured us quietly as he marched us beaten off the field and told us that Airborne was not about the silver wings. (Blasphemy you say? Hardly. Read further.) Airborne was a state of mind. You either had it or you did not. The wings could not give it to you either.

It was then that I can say that I truly understood. And, five weeks later I still had that case of shin splints—far worse even!!– that had kept me out of the previous class. I remember at times beings in such a state that I could barely walk but I did not let the Blackhat Airborne instructors see this.

I know now that I did not at first have what it took to be Airborne. In the Army and especially in the Airborne they have their pet name for this–intestinal fortitude. By failing, I had become much stronger. Even though, when they pinned my silver jump wings on at Fryer Drop Zone, five weeks later, I was more bruised and beat up than I could imagine was possible. I was a better man and a better paratrooper for having failed that one time.

Fighting Soldiers from the sky

Fearless men who jump and die

Men who mean just what they say….”

 

Hardcore Harry