Memorial day always brings with it a period of reflection. Like most Veterans, I carry a deep understanding of friends that have given all while protecting our Republic. In some cases, these memories are shared by no one else on earth. A moment in time frozen in a private synaptic library. Therein lies the weight.
I’ve spent this weekend in a mixed state of deep reflection and prideful t-shirt jaunting.
I have a Netflixesque binge-watch session streaming in my consciousness that chronicles story after story of heroism, sacrifice, and valor with unflappable humor in the face of adversity.
This moment of reflection also dredges up the gray somber anechoic pain of losing these friends.
In my 20 year career as a US Air Force Pararescueman, I was honored to sit at a Team table with this country’s finest. In prosecuting our duties I attended a funeral (on average) every 15 months for 20 years. 16 men gave all. Their families and I will seem slightly preoccupied walking through this weekend’s BBQ lines. If you get behind one of us please be patient.
Three stories are trending loudest in my head movie.
Jeff (JY) Jones was from Honolulu. He had that languid Hawaiin presence about him. He was quietly funny, always smiling and seemed to be naturally tan even in the wet winters of Northern CA. We were stationed together in the early 80’s. His slower clock speed seemed to allow him to connect with people that you might miss if you were moving too fast. This was evidenced by our tray slides through the chow hall and the ladies behind the glass giving JY a significantly larger portion of food every day. He was 21. He gave me his Military ID one weekend so I could get into the Sacramento bars. I still have it today.
JY died parachuting into the middle of the Pacific to save a Navy pilot who had ejected from a burning A6. I had driven him out to the Rescue C-130 and helped him load his gear. The last time I saw him he was standing in the paratroop door smiling. I told him I hoped he’d get the mission while he was on-station alert as fighters flew overhead transiting to HI from CA. Less than 24 hours later I was looking out the door of another Rescue C-130 searching the Pacific for him. As I’ve gotten older I realize the sacrifice we all made that day. This loss was our loss.
JY left that aircraft with little water, a Vietnam era radio that probably wouldn’t work a knife, a flare, a mirror and a one-man rubber raft that might float. He jumped into high seas into the middle of the Pacific with a round parachute designed in WWII. He jumped because the Navy pilot that had ejected needed help. He was trained to help. He was wired to help. He jumped. We never saw him again.
I had just finished up a day line in Korea in the mid 90’s. I was putting away the alert equipment. The night crew was jocking up. Jason Kutcher and Richy Setaro were the PJ’s on that line. I helped them load the bird. Jason was all cammied up for a combat scenario they were running that night. He had to run back into the section to get the alert meds. His hands were on the locker and he looked back at me. He might have been 22 or 23. He was a blond brick shit house. I told him he looked like a Vietnam era SEAL, he said, “I think we should look like this every day”… All I could see was a green blob face with a giant white toothed Cheshire Cat grin smiling back at me. He walked out of the metal doors. I never saw him again.
The weather was bad, the air was full of burning rice field smoke, the NVG’s bloomed with an opaque light through the haze-causing bright halos in the goggles. The pilots didn’t see the wires… I had been scheduled for that night line. Jason had asked me to switch so that he could take a CLEP test at the Education office that morning. He was a smart kid.
I have the letter he wrote and taped to my hotel door asking for the switch. It sits near JY’s ID in what the kids call, “Dad’s shrine…”
The One Called Ryan…
Tim Ryan was a mentor to an entire generation of Pararescuemen. He was a Legend. He was a physical specimen. He was a Modesto boy born and bred. He was Silicon Valley CEO smart two decades early. When he laughed he sounded like a 13-year-old girl. Hearing that giggle coming from his diamond stone cut frame always made us laugh in kind…
Tim was on a HAHO training mission in Korea in the early 90’s. His team opened their square parachutes high and planned to fly them at night to a landing zone on the horizon. One of the PJ’s had a malfunction and opened much lower and wasn’t able to make it. The land of the Morning Calm exacted another steep price that night. Bruce Patterson hit the high tension power lines and he immediately caught fire. The arching current burned through his parachute, it melted the small Oxygen tank manifold tied to his side effectively creating a blow torch that melted the weapon also strapped to him. The after action report said the heat was in the 1,000’s of degrees. The weapon the gear and Bruce were melted together. Tim and the rest of the team landed nearby and ran to him as the lines of the parachute mercifully melted through dropping him 60 feet into a burning heap at their feet. There was only one man in the world at that time that could have done something to help in this situation. He just settled in and got to work.
Tim bivalved the eschar around Bruce’s chest so he could breathe. He did a femoral cut down to place an IV and immediately started high volume fluid replacement. He coordinated the extraction. He got Bruce back to Osan AB ROK alive. No small feat. He was just getting started. The hospital commander at OSAN told Tim that due to Bruce’s injuries he wouldn’t be sent back to Brooks burn center in San Antonio. He wouldn’t live through the trip. There was nothing that could be done. They would keep Bruce comfortable…
Tim walked away from that conversation and as Staff Sergeant was able to go directly through his network to reroute a C-141 to Osan to pick up Bruce and get him back to TX. I know that sounds incredulous but it is absolutely true. Tim had connections via the Special Operations community. He called for favors that his proven reputation had enabled. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He would never do less than the right thing. The whole right thing. Ever. I’m proud of the Air Force leaders that recognized Tim for what he was and supported him when he asked for help that night…
I met Bruce later in San Antonio when he’d come back from a routine appt at the hospital. He was a full-time college student. He wore a compression suit that hid most of the scar tissue. He was in good spirits. He was happy and alive and growing. His ability to overcome was portrayed in his smile and the peaceful demeanor of someone that had been that close to death with a second chance at life. We shared Tim Ryan stories.
Tim was also in San Antonio at that time. He was a patient at Wilford Hall Hospital. He had parachuted into Panama with the initial runway takeover force and had been evacuated back for orthopedic surgery. He snapped his tib/fib on landing. He made his own way to the triage point. He treated wounded and relayed communications through the entire operation after splinting his own leg. He earned his Bronze Star and Purple Heart on that runway. He earned the trust and respect of this Nation’s Tier One Operators on many such missions.
Tim retired. He started a high-end Outfitting business in North Carolina providing SEAL team six and others with the kit it needed to get work done. He is my benchmark for Entrepreneur Veteran endeavors. Later, Tim was training and mentoring some MARSOC guys in CA as a contractor. On one very long hump, he called the Gunny over and told him to call the Ambulance. Tim was pretty sure he was having a heart attack. He’d wait for the ambulance there. The team should stay on the march. He didn’t want anyone to know… He didn’t want them to stop the mission. He didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. Two days after he had open heart surgery he drove himself from CA back to his home in NC. What a dumb ass.
The second time he had a heart attack he told his kids he wasn’t feeling well and was going to lie down on the couch for a minute. They asked (given his history) if they should call 911? He said no he’d be fine.
I knelt on the ground in Arlington with my palm flat on the earth. His stone came later.
The problem with having Mentors like Tim Ryan is that their lessons and challenges don’t die with them. They haunt you. Tim doesn’t want passive remembrances of days gone past. He doesn’t want war stories and sad toasts. He wants me to do the work. That’s clear to me this Memorial Day.
I have 67 mentees that I help via the Veterati platform. I take a little Tim Ryan and JY Jones and Jason Kutcher, and I sprinkle that with 17 years of business experience post my retirement from the AF. I am committed to helping veterans that need opportunity, experience, a confidence boost, and a mentor to help recognize the strengths they have and where they are applicable in the fourth industrial revolution.
I’m one single Veteran. I’ve highlighted a few stories that I hold true. There are 21.8 million Veterans. Our respective memories of heroes and mentors represents the skeletal structure of our Republic and why it stands.
When I attended John Brown’s funeral in AR after the Extortion 17 shoot down I saw many of my former students who’d been at war for a decade. They had changed. Their smiles came milliseconds slower, their eyes looked older. I could feel the weight of each deployment as they shared stories of long-term reciprocal war/peace/war lifestyles.
You never really give up your seat at the team table. You see things in relation and in context to that table. As I drove away from AR I knew I had to find a way to help. I’ve spent the last seven years building partnerships with Corporations that are leading the way with modern, agile Veteran transition programs. My partners and I are looking for businesses that have that same sense of Obligation for the reasons that are personal and true to each of them. I find we all share a common Simon Sinekian “Why” as we support Veterans.
I was stationed in Okinawa in 1996 and I read the book called “Tennozan” which chronicled the Battle of Okinawa during WWII. During the battle, a Japanese pilot had been shot down and was now literally floating in the front row seat of the largest Naval and Air engagement the world had ever seen. He made this observation in the book. He watched as an American pilot was shot down and ditched his aircraft into the sea. He watched as the pilot’s wingman provided close air support and several naval vessels changed course during the battle to pick up the single American pilot. He realized at that moment that any country with the military and industrial might of America that also showed an unwavering commitment to the individual soldier, sailor, marine or airman – could never be defeated by Japan.
As I’ve gotten older I realize that’s the larger commitment that JY Jones showed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Pilots will fly, Soldier’s will hump, Marines will charge, Sailor’s will project – if they know we’re coming to get them – no matter what. For me, that social contract doesn’t end when Veterans walk outside the Base fence for the last time.
Tim Ryan doesn’t want Memorials, he wants us to do the work. We are this generation’s wingmen. We are the Navy ships that turn course during the battle.
If you want to be part of this mission – contact me. I need partners that want to put their hands flat on the earth and then get strong work done. Thank you to the many Organizations that are already doing this the right way for the right reasons – and for not taking NO for an answer.
We can do this… Together…