In Time: The Passing of First Sergeant Gordon Graves

999570_536476033087412_245543876_n

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.

1381632_221254431384320_478166965_n

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.

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