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

How’s Your Ischial Tuberosity?

My darling wife has brought it to my attention on numerous occasions these last couple weeks that I have not been writing as much as I should in my blog. Incidentally, I was not aware that the word nag was of Scandinavian origin. Think about it. It was the persistent action of the womenfolk back in Scandinavia that led to one of the greatest invasions in all of history!! What probably started out with a blond, vivacious, buxom, Scandinavian goddess, we’ll call her Helga, complaining that her man, Thor, had left his chain mail and sword on the kitchen table again and why is it he could never pick the lid up on the slit trench??? So it was with the shrill echo of the lovely Helga still ringing in his ears reminding poor Thor that the thatch roof needed repairing, and that they were about to run out of moose burgers, that the Vikings set off to engage in an all out war of conquest. (The Viking’s must have looked to the sanctuary of the longship much like Homer Simpson eyes a box of glazed donuts!) Helga was to eventually be bought off with a few shiny trinkets of booty from far away lands and Thor was able to get a group of monks in a monastery write a revisionist history—in exchange for their lives–that covered up Thor’s shortcomings as a husband!

This last week marked my first full week of physical therapy. Slowly along the way I am being re-introduced to the peculiar language of the physical therapist. One of my favorite questions is: “How is your is your ischial tuberosity?” Or, “Is your prosthesis bearing weight on your tuberosity?” No doubt some of my more curious readers were sent scampering away toward yonder bookshelf upon reading that—we’ll call this category reader the more distinguished scholars amongst us: that being the reader who has books that they actually read; books that do more than prop up the shorter leg of the kitchen table that the darling wife with her persistent ministrations caused the reader to “fix” himself rather than call a skilled tradesman. Never underestimate the value of a feeling of self-sufficiency however sad or misplaced!!

Now, that the rest of you lazy bastages have finished looking up the words on Google we can continue!

The ischial tuberosity is quite a common set of protrusions that will be instantly familiar with anyone who has ridden a horse for any length of time. Being “saddle sore” and having a pain in your ischial tuberosity are the same thing! Now there are a great many feelings and sensations that accompany a person such as myself who has not walked in 26+ years that are pretty dang cool: shopping for shoes, standing, and, taking first steps. Trust me when I tell you that remembering that you have an ischial tuberosity IS NOT ONE OF THESE SUPER-DOOPER COOL BEANS (RE)DISCOVERIES!!!

So there I was a saddle sore trooper and nary a horse in sight! It was then that I remembered that I had just turned 48 and thought that this kind of physical endeavor would have been easier 20 some years ago had only the technology been available. It was then that I remind myself that if it were easy then everybody would do it and dang if I can’t help the challenge!!

After all of this, a funny thing happened Thursday afternoon. It was while standing up on my C Legs that I knew right then and there that this was actually going to happen! It was then that balance didn’t seem all that hard a thing to achieve and for the first time I was able to stand without powering through with my upper body. Up until then walking again was something I had imagined in my mind. It was then something I knew with the rest of my body.

My wife Ginny was there too, smiling. For now she didn’t care that my underwear drawer was full of assorted books, half finished journals, and the odd box or ten of ammunition. “Stand up straight! Look straight ahead! Quit looking at your shoes! One more!”

I love her!

 

Hardcore Harry

Gypsies and Paratroopers

The 28th annual Southwest Memorial Airborne Days convention is in Corpus Christi, Texas this weekend.

 

 When you report to the hall at the Holiday Inn, Emerald Beach take care you don’t end up in the convention hall set aside for the psychics and fortune tellers!!!!

 

Be it by accident or design, there the two respective organizations were arrayed side-by-side to receive the aligned convention delegates!! One can only view these two groups side by side and be struck by the immense irony that two such organizations would end up side by side. On second thought, perhaps we were not so different. We paratroopers identify and pride ourselves on floating on rarefied currents of air and the psychics make their living on more ethereal—some might say, super-heated—currents! (Did I just say that?…..I need to find my rabbit’s foot charm to guard against any spiritual reprisals!!)

I sat an pondered this over a bit and it struck me just how incredibly brilliant it would have been had both conventions pooled their respective advertising budgets and made a super-charged, double-billed, weekend extravaganza!!

 

 ONE WEEKEND ONLY!! SEE THE PSYCICS AND PSYCHOTICS TOGETHER!!

 

SEE THE MEN AND WOMEN CRAZY ENOUGH TO JUMP OUT OF PLANES AND SEEK PROFESSIONAL PSYCIC ADVICE THAT CONFIRMS YOU OUGHT NOT TO DO IT!!!

 

BE THERE FOR THE UNVEILING OF THE NEWLY RELEASED PARATROOPER TAROT DECK!!!

WATCH AS THE PALM READERS MARVEL AT HOW SHORT THE LIFELINE IS FOR THE AIRBORNE TROOPER!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BE ASTOUNDED HOW MUCH BEER EVEN THE RETIRED PARATROOPER CAN PUT AWAY!!

SEE AIRBORNE WARRIORS!! HEAR, THEIR LIES, DAMN LIES, TALL TALES, AND WAR STORIES!!!

LEARN WHY THE AIRBORNE TROOPER IS THE MOST AWESOME SOLDIER BOTH ON  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AND OFF

 

 

 

THE BATTLEFIELD!!!

 

You gotta love it! God most certainly has a sense of humor!

Hardcore Harry

LOYALTY

Today is my birthday. I have always thought it fortuitous that I was born on June fifth. After all, it was 66 years ago on June 5th that the Allied Airborne forces took to the air to kick off Operation Neptune, the airborne phase of the D-Day landings. As a veteran of the 82nd Airborne and a field artilleryman I have always had a special place in my heart for paratroopers and artillerymen—especially airborne artillerymen! There is an old artillerymens’ saying that: “Artillery lends dignity to what otherwise might be an unruly brawl.” We are considered the “King of Battle.” Sure the Infantry—the Queen of Battle—takes ground. We artillerymen make sure they hold to it!

The first commander of the 82nd Airborne’s Division Artillery was none other than the great Maxwell Taylor. Maxwell Taylor would go on to command the 101st Airborne in D-Day and the remainder of World War II. We troopers of the 82nd Airborne like to point out that before Maxwell Taylor ever donned the uniform of the “Screaming Eagles” he wore the double “A” of the “All Americans!!!”

My birthday present today was a tattoo. Amazing as it sounds, although I did manage to pick up a tattoo or two during my time in the Airborne; I never managed to find an airborne tattoo that I liked. The off the shelf tats in the off base parlors just did not speak to me. I wanted something meaningful and today, nearly 26 years after I got out of the Army I finally found one that I like. My wife and daughter actually designed this one for me. It is a combination of my airborne artillery regiment’s unit crest and the wings from this year’s Airborne Amputee event that was sponsored by TMC Orthopedic in Houston this last May first and second.

 I like it. It is unique, and it certainly has a great deal of meaning for me. I have always been fond of the sentiment expressed in the regiment’s motto: LOYALTY. It is one word yet it carries with it connotations that cut all the way across ever tradition near and dear to the military:Duty, Honor, Country—SAME THING!

The wings, aside from their obvious connection to parachuting, symbolize the hope that organizations like TMC Orthopedic and its charity Limbs of Love offer to amputees like myself. I had never dreamed even a few months ago that I would ever be offered the chance to walk again yet here I am. It is astonishingly humbling. I have decided that even if it were to turn out that is was all for naught, I am better for having tried my best. There are simply some offers in life that you cannot turn your back on. Thank you TMC and The Amputee and Prosthetic Center for giving me this chance again. I vow to give my utmost toward this endevour and prove that your trust in my abilities was not unfounded.

 

Lastly, I will close by admitting that my loving wife, Ginny,  has long conceded that the Airborne will always be my first love. Therefore, the heart is indeed a symbol of the affection that I hold for the 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment.  Thank you for understanding, dear!

Airborne!

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

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

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