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. “

 

 

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.

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