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

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