Memorial Day

There are times when we chose not to follow protocol—an established way of doing things based not just on best practices but on proven best practices. But when we get into trouble it’s because we didn’t follow protocols and we are without excuse.

For instance, I was a paratrooper. There was a protocol for jumping out of a C-130 Herculesa four-engine turboprop and jumping into the “propblast” of those engines is like being shot out of a cannon. We used both sides of the airplane to jump out of. Here was the protocol: jump hard into the “propblast” and let it throw you away from the airplane. It wasn’t any tremendous feat to do that, just vigorously jump. I had done it a bunch of times. No big deal. Ah, but on this one jump I got cocky and decided I’d just walk out the door. I must have missed the lecture why this wasn’t a good idea.

I’d jumped out of helicopters, jumped out of small one-engine airplanes, you simply just drop downward. I suppose I was thinking that’s all that would happen. Well no, it turns out, it doesn’t happen like that. So what does happen? You walk out the door and immediately get sucked under the airplane. Okay, that’s survivable. Well, there could be an issue when you are jumping using a static line—that’s a line coming out of your parachute hooked to a line in the airplane that pulls your chute out for deployment. You’ve now put that static line in positions not always good. But say nothing happens and you just slide under the airplane and your chute opens and you’re on your way happily down. 

Unless, of course, another jumper is going out the other door. What happened failing to follow protocols? I got sucked under the giant C-130 and went flying into the jumper going out the other door. An understatement saying it shocked the hell out of me. That in itself could have been disaster. The gods were with us and shock seemed to be the worst of it. Or so we thought.

There is a scientific law that says two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. My freaking parachute wanted to disprove that law. It was like his parachute became a magnet and kept pulling me into him. Our parachutes in those days were second generation, some improvement, not much. The harness was improved to better distribute your weight as you floated in air. A big improvement was the quick release harness. But it still had very little slip ability. Nothing like today when you can near fully maneuver your parachute in the direction you want to go. Back then, if we pulled hard on one side’s shroud lines pulling that side of the parachute slightly down letting air slip out the other end you could move some in that direction. We both pulled in opposite directions and for a split second it worked, then I was pulled back into his chute. In fact, I ended up walking on the edge of his chute. Another scientific law, the person on the bottom got the air, the one on top lost his. I was in danger of losing my air at which time I would use that quick release and let my chute go and shimmy down his shroud line and hug him like my life depended on it, and it would, and we would go down together in a death hug.

I managed to fight my way off his parachute, actually slip away from him enough that we stayed apart this time. Thanking the gods for my life I now looked down and saw where I was going to land. If I had not been now again scared to death I would have laughed. Where I was going to land was either in a trench ditch or a rock wall. Both would break one or both legs and possible my neck. I was slipped out and I didn’t have a choice where I was going to land. Preparing myself for final disaster, unaware the gods were with me, miraculously I landed between the ditch and wall breaking neither leg or neck. Laugh or cry, which was I going to do? The patch on my left arm was the 10thSpecial Forces patch. The hat I would wear when I took off my helmet was a Green Beret. Would I despoil that by crying. Not ever.

But let me now turn to something more serious, though for me that was very serious. Memorial Day is approaching, a time when we remember our fallen brothers and sisters in war. When I finished Intelligence School and was asked where I wanted to go I volunteered for VietNam. President Johnson had not yet turned this into a disastrously fought war. At that time I would go not as a fighting force, not yet, but as a training force. But the Army, however, decided to send me to Germany to protect America from the Russians.

When Johnson finally got us into the big war we would now go over as a fighting force and after volunteering again I was again declared more important against the Russians. Friends and fellow “bennies” did go. Elite forces like the Special Forces don’t work in front of enemy lines, we do our duty behind enemy lines making us always vulnerable to disaster. A team of ours from Germany was there and was overwhelmed by the enemy forces and found themselves in a fight for their life.

If you watch any of those modern military shows you’ll hear the phrase “exfill” meaning extraction of our force. Nice term but one way back then we didn’t use. What we used was: “We need to get the hell out of here!” Elite troops feel they are invincible but they’re not. We may take out many more than ourselves but at some point the law of numbers overwhelm even the best. That was the outlook for this team if the 11thAir Cav did not come in with their helicopters and rescue them. It didn’t happen and they all lost their lives. For a long time I blamed the Air Cav for not coming to them. They were following their protocol, not one that said if bullets are flying stay away, one that said if the weather is too bad, the clouds too low to see the ground you can’t go. That’s why they didn’t show up and save the day and that’s why some I didn’t personally know along with those I did died that day ingloriously behind the enemy line in the jungle of VietNam. Let me borrow Lt. General Hal Moore’s book title based on the battle he led in Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam: “We were soldiers once . . . and young.” Young and dumb.

To those that day along will all who put their lives on the line for their country and gave the greatest sacrifice, I honor what you did and thank you.