Thank You For Your Service: Sister Gertrude and the Legend of the Blushing Airborne Ranger

This is an excerpt of the speech given at a luncheon at Donald Mooney Enterprises on June 24th 2016.  I have opted to record it for posterity to remind Captain William Eskridge just how damn awesome we were in our youth–or embarrass  him with the telling. Take your pick!!

Airborne!! All the Way!! Sir!!

Rangers Lead the Way!!

Willing and Able! Mass the fire!!

Hardcore Harry

 

 

 

I sometimes suspect that younger veterans think I am telling tall tales when I tell them that folks didn’t always thank every veteran they meet for their service. Thirty-three years ago, when I was a young 21-year old combat-wounded veteran, the vast majority of people I would meet somehow seemed more interested in “other” concerns of a more personal nature. At  first, I didn’t know what to think of it? Eventually, it became so predictable that it became second nature to respond with the cursory pat answer that satisfied their overriding sense of curiosity. It started with my sister, Robin, asking the doctors in ICU. It reached its apex when a Catholic nun named Sister Gertrude, who was at least all of 80-plus years old, tottered up to my bed on Ward 43C in Beach Pavilion at Fort Sam Houston and introduced herself.

 

“Hello,” she says shaking my hand.  “My name is Sister Gertrude.”

“How are your testicles?”

Somehow, I managed to stammer out an answer, in my thoroughly embarrassed state, that satisfied her.

 

“Bless you!” she says, patting me on the hand. She then turns  to the bed adjoining mine. There was then First Lieutenant Bill Eskridge from the Second Ranger Battalion, who had lost his right leg at Calvigny Barracks, during the third day of operations of Operation Urgent Fury.

Bill ...Ranger photo

 

She asks Bill the same question, in front of all of our friends and family and God.

I don’t recall ever seeing that shade of red on a blushing Airborne Ranger before…

I am also certain that I must have  at least equaled its hue in my previous attempts at a response!!

 

Again, satisfied with our horrifyingly awkward responses. She thanks us and leaves.

Yet,  the legend and single-minded bravery of this plucky, frail,  and tottering nun has never died!

We both knew right then that we had witnessed an un-daunting courage that neither of us had, or,  would ever, possess!!

 

Thank you for your service. What does it mean? Personally, I am not always sure about the expression. Indeed, sometimes, I find the phrase inherently uncomfortable and vague. I suppose that this has to do with the fact that most individuals using the phrase are blissfully unaware of the true nature of the object for which they are thanking us for. In some ways, looking back,  the overwhelming comical, carnal curiosity in one’s testes has a genuineness often missing in today’s perfunctory addressing of combat veterans. Because, in asking there is provided  an answer with either in the negative or affirmative that everyone can relate. There, is either loss or joy. Everything is simplified. Everything is related.

 

“Thank you for your testes, young man!”

“You’re welcome. Glad to oblige!”

 

Not likely to start a trend, I am afraid.

 

THAT age has thankfully passed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in: on June 24, 2016 at 9:58 pm  Comments (1)  

When I Last Saw Jean-Luc

     This morning I received a phone call from my friend Jean-Luc Nash’s West Point class mate, Don Mooney. Don was given the unenviable task of telling me that Jean-Luc had passed away at his home in Pensacola last night.  Those of you who know my story, know about Jean-Luc and Tim Andruss and their heroic efforts on the battlefield during Operation Urgent Fury on that October afternoon in 1983, in the wake of a misdirected air strike that hit the Second Brigade Tactical Operations Center (TOC) for the 82nd Airborne Division.

 

I know a lot about the depths of desperation and despair and loss, but, nothing in my life has compared to the absolute sense of loss of this great giant of a man. There is a hole in the world and there is a hole in the depths of my heart.  Superlatives pale in comparison to the magnitude of the greatness that was Jean-Luc Nash. I did not know him before we invaded Grenada on October 25th 1983.  There has not been a day that has passed since then that I have not thought of him.  What transpired on that bloody battleground was more than lives (my own included) being saved.  One cannot truly understand the depths of true brotherhood until one has shared the absolute intensities and desperations and depravations of warfare.  Jean-Luc Nash did more than make it possible for me to have a chance at surviving that day. He gave me countless opportunities.

 

The last time I saw Jean-Luc was in September when we spent a few days with him and his wife Michele at their home in Pensacola, Florida.  We were on our way to Disneyworld for the first time and we had our granddaughter Maia along with us for the three week trip.  Miss Maia was particularly smitten by Jean-Luc and he with her.  Jean-Luc and Michele had a little girl’s tricycle that he kept in the garage for their grandkids.  Maia would ride her “bike” up and down the driveway at the house there in Pensacola.  Maia’s second favorite activity was gathering up all the acorns and placing them in the basket of the tricycle to plant to make “baby trees.”  Jean-Luc, being Jean-Luc, played gracefully along. He was like that. He was always accommodating, and, he always had time for the soft cuddly tyranny of a toddler’s whims and fancies.

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I remember taking this picture on my phone camera and thinking then how poignant it was.  I also remember thinking how he—Jean-Luc—had made this scene possible. Without me surviving that dreadful day in Grenada in 1983, there would have never been the possibility or the opportunity to share this quiet reflective moment in Pensacola 32 years later. Yeah, you made it possible big guy! You made so much possible. I had hoped to have more scenes like this to share with you before you left this world too soon. And now, you are gone.  I will forever reach out to you and the memory of who you were and seek to be worthy of the faith you had in my life.

 

Godspeed my friend. “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. “

 

 

Rhymes of Rebellion

Rhymes of Rebellion

By Harry Shaw

Bandera, Texas

10 July, 2015

 

 

 

Where were you when they came for the Buddhas?

 

No doubt sipping on an icy Coke,

 

When the sentinels at Bamiyan went up in smoke.

 

Everybody loves their Mullahs.

 

 

 

Everyone has a bitch.

 

Every rattlesnake has its rattle.

 

Everyone has a burr under their saddle.

 

Toss the pages of history in the ditch.

 

 

Jihadists’ jihad upon the past.

 

Just think how long ancient Sumer has last.

 

Beheading statues and Christians alike for their Mullahs.

 

One can never go too far for their Allahs.

 

 

 

Now our American Mullahs vote to ban a flag.

 

And dig up dead generals from their graves.

 

Ban the banner, and, sell not the scarves and staves!

 

Sing songs of anarchy! Top the bottle with an oily rag.

 

 

 

 

Now if I were from Alabama,

 

I’d be a Talibana.

 

Now burn that banjo on your knee!

 

And forget not that every tyrant and rebel has his creed!

 

 

 

Now folks like me, have a proposition,

 

What the hell happened to the Loyal Opposition?

 

Politicians, hucksters, and inglorious gas bags,

 

Accusers’ sins unredeemed in their own preambles and flags.

 

 

 

 

 

Ban you statues, ban you flags;

 

And, artist and rebel alike will raise another!

 

Look at me! I’m offended!

 

Curses! Curses! Tear asunder!

 

 

 

Here we sit on our tottering thrones in this world of war,

 

And seek to kill off the past that rises with us.

 

Please tell me! Which of the past years are,

 

Ours for the keeping?

In Time: The Passing of First Sergeant Gordon Graves

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Today marks the passing of an age. First Sergeant Gordon Graves has made his last jump.  Top was a maker of men and heroes alike.  Although, he would be the first to deny his status in the pantheon of heroes, we troopers who knew and loved him scoff at the mere notion of his self-exclusion.

Top Graves, like the heroes in all ages was connected to the very same thread of existence. We paratroopers who served with him remain connected to the fiber and weave of this thread in an unbreakable link to the pantheon of world history. Before us, we followed. After us, others follow in the Airborne Brotherhood. The link to the past, present, and future is assured only as long as good men like Gordon Graves are remembered. This be the duty of the living.

I remember him as he was and not how he became when I saw him last a few weeks ago on a trip to Seabrook, Texas. I remain eternally grateful to have had the opportunity to see this fine man one last time before he passed. I know he knew that. Still, parting is such sweet sorrow.

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In time, I know we will all meet in the old barracks on Carentan Road. We will hastily assemble in formation as the battery guidon snaps gently in a Carolina breeze born on the sweet scent of southern pines. First Sergeant Gordon Graves will be there sounding roll call: “Shaw?” he will call. “Airborne! First Sergeant!” I will reply. Reveille will sound in the darkness from Division Headquarters; and, we will snap to attention and turn and salute the flag. Afterwards we will meet at Green Ramp and fit out parachutes and jump on Sicily Drop Zone where Top will lead the way out the door on a cool and clear and crisp October day. We will live again in a world where things are made right and good.

We will meet again at Point Salines Airfield too, where the battle will rage on about us. We will act again with great intrepidity and with courage and relive those days before everything changed forever and innocence and the invulnerable prerogatives of youth were shattered forever. As the howitzers in the battery thunder our intentions defiantly, we will look at each other and smile and know that this is as it was in the old days. This was real.

Grenada

Some might find it curious that on the thirty year anniversary of the day I was wounded in action that I would long to be back in the one place that it all ended and began for me:

Grenada.

I have always believed that the universe holds its breath when we mortals come to the crossroads of life-changing events. Enter one door, and the force of creation lets out a sigh of relief–choose the other, and, angels weep. I also believe that some doors we enter are not by the gentle knocking and turning of handles. Some doors we enter crashing through in an explosion of chaos and splinters. Upon entering we are given one question to answer:

“What are you going to do now?”

How you answer this each and every day determines what kind of life you lead.

Robert Ruark, is one of my favorite authors. In the second chapter of his book, “Horn of the Hunter,” he muses that his soul has forever been catching up to his heart because of his travels. I believe that this is something that anyone who has ever been seriously wounded in combat can relate to. Combat has the capability to disintegrate bodies into unrecognizable fragments. I also believe that it is also responsible for fragmenting souls.

Thirty years of trying to piece my fragmented soul back together again has taught me that I can never tell just where one of those disembodied pieces will show up.

I found a piece of it on the green grass of Arlington National Cemetery when I visited the gravesite of Sergeant Sean Luketina on the ten year anniversary of his death. I don’t have answers to the riddles of fortune and luck. Nor, can I answer why good men die too young. I do know like Ruark that, “If they keep exposing you to education, you might even realize some day that man becomes immortal only in what he writes on paper, or hacks into rock, or slabbers onto a canvas, or pulls out of a piano.” ( Robert Ruark,   The Old Man and the Boy).

So it is left for survivors to tell the tale.

Where was I? Oh yes! Let me continue.

One week on the San Juan River in North Western New Mexico is where the trout led me to another piece of my soul.

I had to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1997 to find a missing piece in Cardiff, Wales where I met my wife, Ginny. When our daughter Lucienne was born in 2002, I found yet another.

The pieces are never found where you are looking. They sort of descend upon you like loving-kindness. They reside in ordinary things and hide in extraordinary ways. Always, I have been aware of one indisputable fact:

The greater sum of my soul has remained in the verdant hills of that island–merged with the soul of a nation freed. Carried on the tropical scented breeze, down to the achingly white beaches to the sea.

It calls to me…..

I am forever haunted.

The Soldiers’ Love

The following poem was in part delivered  in my presentation before the West University Rotary Club on November 11, 2010. I modified parts of this but the central theme remains intact. It is my wish that you understand the sincerity with which this piece was written.

Harry

The Soldiers’ Love

By Harry Shaw

 

More than kisses, letters mingle souls.” John Donne

Soldiers’ Love:

The soft tender embrace of a beloved,

The first wail of their newborn child,

Home and family.

Soldiers’ Love:

Angels on our shoulders,

The silent prayers of wives and mothers,

Coming home.

Soldiers Love:

The passing of the colors,

The singing of anthems sweet,

Duty to God and country.

Soldiers Love:

Marching to the sound of the guns,

The sergeant barking orders,

Chaplains on the line.

This Soldier Loves:

The shining copper pans left on the counter,

Remembering my mother’s kitchen,

The book of Love Poems by John Donne that sits on the shelf.

Farewell to a Soldier Loved:

The last words uttered by the fallen,.

Not wanting to say goodbye,

The crack of the rifles at the playing of taps.

The Soldier Loved:

Loyalty,

Service above self,

Honor.

The Soldier Loved and Remembered:

The hallowed green grass of Arlington,

Rows of white marble

An emptiness in my heart.

Makers of Dreams:The 33rd Jump

Too often, it seems, it is the dreams we dream in youth that become the unfulfilled regrets we bear later on in life. I had always dreamed of being a paratrooper and I was blessed, even for a brief time to wear the mantle of awesome responsibility that comes from such a calling. The writer, George Orwell, perfectly summed it up in this quote:

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

And though, looking back I was just a kid at the time, I was a paratrooper and I was there when I was needed.

Long before I wore the silver wings of the airborne, I dreamed them into existence in my youth. Moreover, as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division I have been doubly blessed in my life to meet the heroes I read of in the books of my youth. Men like the incomparable General Matthew Ridgway, the one-time commander of the 82nd Airborne; the quiet yet unassuming First Sergeant, Leonard Funk—winner of the Medal of Honor; and the ever humble Chaplain George Woods—when I met him while recuperating in the hospital at Fort Sam Houston in 1983, he told me first hand of the gruesome spectacle of the massacre of the troopers who jumped into to the town square at St. Mere Eglise France on the night of June 6th, 1944. These and more did I meet.

What does one say when one of one’s most treasured dreams are about to come true? In my case at the tandem jump this last Saturday at Skydive Spaceland in Houston, nothing. I had to take in all of the the moment and promised I would save the eloquence for later. This is not to say that I did not think big thoughts—of those, I can assure you there were plenty. What I simply needed was to put some space between these affairs of the earth and spend a few brief moments soaring the heavens.

There have been times during these twenty-seven years since Operation Urgent Fury that I have been the recipient of pity. Although, at no time did a solicit it nor will I ever, it comes. It comes sometimes in the most unusual and unexpected places. The accompanying pathos over the physical loss I find very hard to endure because to me the most heartrending loss was what could not be seen. The loss of my limbs I could endure with steadfast resolution. Not being able to jump again hurt most of all my wounds.

Somewhere above the clouds on the way down it all becomes clear to me. Here I have assembled before me on this most perfect of days was a cast of characters most noble and treasured above all. These were the makers of dream. In another time and place the muses would have compelled the poets to dream such men into existence. There was Joe Sansone before me, ostensibly the CEO of TMC Orthopedics and founder of Limbs of Love. What do you say to a man who offers hope where none have ever existed? All I could offer was a most joyous smile a most heartfelt thank you and my hand in friendship and vow to live up to the trust you have placed in me.

Jean-Luc Nash was there with me that October day in Grenada twenty seven years ago when it all went horribly wrong. Timothy Andruss was there too with Jean-Luc. Their bravery and their quick actions gave me a chance at survival. These two men were the real heroes that day—they know I know this, though it is doubtful you will ever hear them own up to their incredible exploits. These two and many others whose names I will never know made the dream possible. We are brothers bound by the sacred bonds of battle.

Don Mooney, Jean-Luc’s West Point classmate and best friend was there too. Don, I owe you more than I can ever repay for your advocacy on my behalf. You I consider a facilitator of the dream. Congratulations on your sixth jump my friend, I know it has been a longer time coming than my last. Relish it always!

What can be said about the incomparable world record parachutist Jay Stokes? You sir are an honored knight of the sky and and a treasure to the airborne brotherhood. I consider it an honor to have served the same battalion that you once served. My only regret is that we had not met sooner. Your professionalism and attention to detail are a tremendous credit to you and your profession. Thank you my newfound friend for granting me this most sacred and treasured wish.

To my loving wife, Ginny and children: Sebastian, Chloe, and Lucienne; who know all my best stories by heart I owe the finest of what I am to you. You too have borne my dreams and are always there to make sure I live up to them. Lucie, my hope is one day you will understand the importance of us taking your  teddy bear on the jump with us. Not many little girls  can say their bear jumped from 14,000 feet!

One other was present that most perfect day. I carry his memory in my heart each and every moment. Sergeant Sean Luketina was there. He was there and he was remembered well and fondly. He is a spiritual light. Somewhere between heaven and earth you will find him. Those of us who lived that day twenty seven years ago cannot forget this brave trooper of the Signal Corps. I keep a framed picture of him. Sean is talking on a radio and if on one day somewhere amongst clouds and the sky, if you listen closely you will hear the message he is broadcasting.

Hardcore Harry

The Story of Us

 

Go tell the Spartans,
Passerby,
That here, obedient to their laws,
We lie.

Simonides, Epitaph for the Spartans who fell at Thermopylae
Greek poet (556 BC – 468 BC)

Greetings from the Center for the Intrepid!

I have not posted on this blog since late July—not because I had nothing of importance to say. In fact, what I wanted to say had even more importance than just about anything I had written previously. Too often one can get caught up in the retelling of events and the lens of recall gets focused solely on the individual deeds and accomplishments. The real problem lies with one fundamental fact: war is not an individual sport. It took coming here to the Center for the Intrepid to remind me of this fundamental maxim.

In addition to my daily schedule of physical therapy, I have of been re-reading Steven Pressfield’s stunning book, Gates of Fire. The book is about the Battle of Thermopylae and the defense and sacrifice of the 300 Spartans under the command of King Leonidas. The story seems to me to be a fitting metaphor for the men and women who have been sent here to the Center for the Intrepid and I would grant that a solid core of those here assembled are every bit the equal of any of those 300 Spartans of ancient Greece. That is not to say that there is not a smattering of miscreants and schmoes here; but, that these are a most rare species and it is not duty nor my calling to tell tales. I look at it this way, those assembled here are but a microcosm of the Armed Forces of these United States and only a fool him or herself would assume that true perfection exists there or here because it just is not so.

What we do have here is a stunning collection of individuals some of whom who’s stories may never be told. However, that does not mean that their courage and their sacrifice and what is lost are any less poignant or compelling. One cannot stay here long without becoming painfully aware of the heavy burden of war’s doom being paid by the men and women of our armed forces—that is if one has a soul. It fills me with a yearning and sorrowful ache some days to know and see first hand the cost being borne with such resolute courage and conviction by these assembled here. I vowed early on in my stay that my first obligation was for me to discard the “me” “myself” and “I” and tell the story of “us.”

There is a deep and abiding secret that lies in the heart of every warrior and it comprises the glue that binds this brotherhood of valor together. Fundamental truths are revealed in the fulcrum of battle: All we have is this and each other. Now if I may borrow a speech toward the end of the book Gates of Fire to highlight this point. Pressfield writes most eloquently:

When a warrior fights not for himself, but for his brothers, when his most passionately sought goal is neither glory nor his own life’s preservation, but to spend his substance for them, his comrades, not to abandon them, not to prove unworthy of them, then his heart truly has achieved contempt for death, and with that he transcends himself and his actions touch the sublime. This is why the warrior cannot speak of battle save to his brothers who have been there with him. The truth is too holy, too sacred for words.”

Hardcore Harry

A Perfect Chaos

For those of you who survived the 1990s (I would pretty much bet that includes everyone reading this!!) you probably remember the hit series “Third Rock From The Sun”. Joe Diffie sang these words in the title track for the opening credits of every episode:

“Cause and effect, chain of events

All of the chaos makes perfect sense”

It was while I was trying to make sense of the events that have transpired since the First of May of this year that Joe Diffie’s playful tune popped into my head.

I was thinking that the chain of events that have transpired since the failed parachute jump in Houston are the most divinely perfect kind of chaos—if there can possibly be such a thing! Nevertheless, it has defined my crazy life and I am going to stick with the metaphor! I think of it as a showering of goodwill and incredible good luck that has fallen down on me like a welcome warm summer rain that comes out of nowhere here in South Texas sometimes on those white-hot wide afternoons and you feel refreshed.

So, if any of my loyal readers have been wondering what is up with my efforts to walk again and why I have not posted anything on my blog these last few weeks, it is not that I have given up—no sir! Far from it! These last few weeks have been filled with action but not the kind that lends itself to insightful writing and cutting epiphany. The repetitious nature of physical therapy is like that—repetitious, not particularly capable of invoking cutting edge commentary. It is probably equally true that physical therapists, coaches, and especially sports stars don’t make brilliant scholarly insights above the standard overused sporting cliches. So, rather than give you a grocery list of reps and sets of particular exercises I decided to spare you the details and wait till I had something of substance to write about.

So there I was about a week and a half ago in the Tricare office at NAS Corpus Christi making sure that the next round of physical therapy was good to go and that there would be no breaks in the treatment. When I made the comment that while I was generally ok with how things were going; however, what I would really like more than anything else in the world was an all expense paid trip to the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston. To my surprise, was met with the response by the Tricare representative Charlene Hagar, “Well, why not!?”

I was dumbfounded. Could it really be that easy???

A few emails exchanged by my dear friend Jean-Luc to his friend Don and Johnny and lo and behold tomorrow I have my first appointment at the Center for the Intrepid with my doctor and will meet the team that will set my course of treatment for the next few weeks. Johnny was the secret weapon so to speak, he is a retired Sergeant Major. Anyone who knows the Army will tell you without a doubt it is the NCOs that make things happen. I do not make this statement in jest either!

Throughout this process of getting my legs I have been humbled and astounded by the level of effort and faith that people have put forth on my behalf. In Houston the TMC Orthopedic and the Amputee and Prosthetic Center broke every record getting me measured and fit for my C-Legs. A process normally took a couple weeks was done in less than 72 hours! Moreover, this has carried forth to the selection process for the Center for the Intrepid where I have been informed that a great many people went to great effort on my behalf and again new benchmarks were set.

To all who have advocated on my behalf and who have offered the most kind words of support and encouragement, I vow to you that your efforts and support are and will be worthwhile.

Thank you! I promise to not disappoint! So, for the next few weeks, me and my wife and daughter Lucie will be staying at one of the Fisher Houses here on Fort Sam Houston and I will be setting course on a a redefined treatment to get me up and walking on my C-legs.

Exciting stuff!

Stay tuned for more!

Hardcore Harry

Sergeant Sean Luketina

Some days are indelibly burned into your memory. For me, one of those days is June 30th. Today is the day that Sergeant Sean Luketina died. I did not know Sean before Operation Urgent Fury; but, there has not been a day that has passed that I have not thought of him.

I live near the ocean. I find that the massive expanse of the sea helps me to put everything in perspective. Today Hurricane Alex is bearing down on the Gulf Coast south of where me and my family have made our home. In a strange way I find the immense power of a hurricane calmly reassuring. It helps me to feel small. I know too well what it is like to get caught up in the whirlwinds of life and the storms that churn in the Gulf of Mexico offer an affirmation of proportion in all things.

James Taylor sings the song “Walking Man” that I have never been able to get out of my head for many, many years. It is only now that I am beginning just now to add meaning to the last part of the opening refrain:

 Moving in silent desperation

Keeping an eye on the holy land

A hypothetical destination

Say, Who is this walking man?

 Who is this walking man? I am: a husband; the father who dotes on his daughter; always the paratrooper; eyes on the sky wishing to fly…again; a college graduate; a font of trivial knowledge; a teacher, sometimes the muse; always the seeker of truth; and I am the survivor of tragedy unspeakable.

Sean and I were wounded side by side in the misdirected air strike that took my legs. Sean was evacuated immediately as it was determined that he had the best chance of surviving. Me? If you ask Jean-luc Nash he will tell you that they really didn’t know where to start. I was a perfect mess.

It was a month later that Sean went into the coma. He was suffering from uremic poisoning and it was during the operation that the doctors at Walter Reed removed his legs that he went into the coma from which he would never awake. It was shortly after that that I got a letter from his mother. She told me about her son who had also lost his legs. She was looking for answers. She did not know that Sean and I had been shot in the same incident. I am not sure she found comfort in the truth that I wrote her. I can only hope that she did.

I visited Sean’s grave in Arlington in 1994 on the tenth anniversary of his death. I did not know that his mother had chosen to be buried with her son. It was a touching display of motherly devotion and this sight on the green fields of Arlington haunts me to this day:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He died one day shy of his 24th birthday.

Who is this walking man?

I am the keeper of memories of fallen heroes.

Rest in peace my brother.

Hardcore Harry