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. “

 

 

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

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

“All Come Tumblin Down” Urgent Fury Part III

Service in the Second Brigade TOC (Tactical Operations Center) was a constant staccato of radio transmissions and updates from units of the 82nd Airborne punctuated by very brief moments between missions where we were able to catch our breath. The pace of action was wholly different from a line battery but very much like serving in my very first assignment in the 82nd Airborne with the Battalion FDC (Fire Direction Center). The TOC was the nerve center or “brains” of the brigade and everything that happened was approved through the TOC or was communicated directly through us. The TOC also had an Air Force Forward Air Controller team stationed along side of us paratroopers as well as a Marine Anglico (Air Naval Gunfire) team responsible for calling in Naval air strikes and/or naval gunfire support. All in all there were 25 of us and we were responsible for all of the air, artillery, and naval assets supporting the 82nd Airborne Division and the two US Army Ranger Battalions on the southern part of the island near Point Salines Airfield.

The combined arms battlefield was still in its infancy and there were still a lot of kinks to be worked out of the system. The most glaring problem was the radios themselves. There was no way for the Army to talk to the Navy or Marines without an Anglico Team on site and visa versa. This caused a great deal of confusion early on and this would ultimately lead to a tragic miscommunication on the afternoon of the 27th of October that would change my life forever.

Mid-morning on the 27th the TOC moved its operations to Calliste Barracks that had been captured in the previous day’s fighting. Calliste Barracks was north and east of Salines Airfield and it occupied a wonderful bit of high ground on a ridge that overlooked the airfield and the surrounding countryside. Our Cuban and communist adversaries fancied this ramshackle bit of 2X4 and 3/4inch pine clad walls and galvanized tin roof structure as a barracks; but, it was a far cry from even the most basic accommodations in the United States military. I imagine our Air Force partners in the TOC must have thought it was quite a dreadful bit of slumming around compared to their country club barracks back in the States! For us paratrooper it was dry and a nice change from the rocks and dirt that we had been been staying in since we landed. Visually, it was still a third-world s**thole. It was home for now!

If you will allow, I will highlight the difference between the different service branches with an illustrative vignette. There is a cartoon that was circulating around that pretty much sums up the US military and its relative outlook on what constitutes suitable living quarters that I remember seeing some time back. Basically it involves a horrendous thunderstorm and the first scene has an Air Force airman in his barracks with the TV remote in his hand. The thunderstorm has just knocked out the cable reception of his TV. As the storm rages in the background the airman says, “Man, this sucks! The cable has gone out!”

The next scene has a US Army leg (non-airborne) infantryman in a muddy foxhole enduring the same storm. The GI says dejectedly as the lightning crashes and the rain pours down, “Man, this sucks!”

Now, take that same storm and move on to the scene with an 82nd Airborne paratrooper in the same mud-filled foxhole with the same storm raging late into the night. The paratrooper says with a maniacal grin sprouting across his unshaved face, “Man, I like the way this sucks!”

Lastly, we move on to a similar foxhole with a US Army Ranger. The Ranger looks about disappointingly as the thunder and lightning crash all around and the foxhole fills with muddy water. The Ranger sighs and says in a disappointed tone, “Man, I wish this would suck some more!”

There is a poster of an 82nd Airborne trooper that you often see that pretty much highlights this same thing to some degree. I know, I used to keep a full sized copy in my room above my bed in the barracks. It shows an 82nd trooper during the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944. Here is a copy of it:

Anyway, back to the battle!

As I stated earlier, the TOC had approval and coordinated all fire missions and indirect support for our sector of the island. Mid afternoon on the 27th the TOC did just that by coordinating airstrikes and artillery preparatory fire for the Rangers assault on one of the last enemy strongholds on the island. As you can see from this picture, the level of destruction would have made it considerably uncomfortable for any holdouts still bent on “dying for the glorious Communist Revolution.” We were only too happy to oblige them in this quest!!

Calvigny Barracks H-Hour bombardment

(http://www.pbase.com/olyinaz/image/102038798)

It was towards the end of this mission that we started taking enemy fire from our front from the hamlets of Ruth Howard, Sugar Mill, and the village of Frequente. There was a drive-in theater nearby and an enemy motor pool that we had captured earlier with a few BTR 60 armored personnel carriers. The “Battle of the Drive-in” would become one of the last engagements where we engaged the enemy. It was during this battle that one of the US Navy A7 Corsairs from the USS Independence would break off from its previous station over the Calvigny Barracks to the east and come in low, fast and level with our position and strafe us with 20 mm cannon fire. I would find out later that the Marine Anglico team had called in the air strike on the enemy that was firing to our front. The strike was 600 meters off and 17 out of 25 members of the TOC were hit.

Right then I did not know this. I could see that myself and Specialist Sean Luketina were badly injured. Further up the barracks Sgt Joey Stewart was hit hit really badly as well. I knew three things right then. Number one, I was in a great deal of pain. I have heard it told and often repeated that when someone if injured really severely that that person does not feel pain. I can only assume whoever made this lie up had never really been injured because the pain was immense! Number two: I was thirsty–very, very thirsty. I could not believe that it would be possible to be that thirsty. I was losing a lot of blood fast. Lastly, My legs were gone. If I survived this my life would be forever different. Right now I wanted two things, something to drink and morphine. I would deal with the missing legs later….if I survived.

Hardcore Harry