The helicopters flew low over the base. We lived in tents just a short distance from the CSH. That’s Combat Support Hospital, pronounced “cash.” You couldn’t avoid the sound. At all hours, the whirring of chopper blades filled the air as they brought in the wounded. Lots of guys in our unit would go over to the cash to help out. They read books to guys who were laid up. They hung out and talked with them. They even helped mop up the blood after the wounded were brought in.
I never went over to help. I went to Iraq three different times and never visited the hospital. I told myself I was busy flying high performance jet aircraft in combat. I couldn’t afford to be distracted. I needed to rest up for the next day’s mission. Never mind that some of the crew chiefs worked on a flight line for 12 hours in 120-degree temperatures and still found time to volunteer.
War from the air is odd. I was in the same war as the guys on the ground. But when you’re in an air-conditioned cockpit, you’re essentially a spectator. When you drop a bomb, you don’t hear the explosion. Soldiers and marines on the ground did the hard work in Iraq and still do it in Afghanistan. Even though I was overhead trying to help those guys, I felt guilty. Guilty that I wasn’t doing enough. Guilty that I had a gym and good chow and a cool office thousands of feet above the fight. Involvement in a firefight was different for me than for those guys. Bullets whizzing by your head sound different than hearing bullets over the radio. It’s like that joke about “ham and eggs” for breakfast. The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.
In a word, I was afraid. I was afraid to go to the hospital. I didn’t want to see the broken bodies of my service buddies. And I was ashamed that I was afraid, which made it worse. Luckily, pilots are good at compartmentalizing. Especially me.
In 2012, we were in Afghanistan. Flying operations took place around the clock. Manpower was stretched thin. At any particular moment, there might be only one pilot who had a “day off.” One day, I was off. The only thing worse than flying in Afghanistan is not flying in Afghanistan. Having time off just made time crawl.
Then I learned a Wounded Warrior was going to tour the flight line. A memo went out looking for pilots to volunteer to lead the tour. I tried to hide initially. Then I finally raised my hand to help.
I gave a tour to Private First Class Kyle Lynch. I went over to a room in the maintenance facility and he was standing up wearing a Wounded Warrior t-shirt and shorts. Somehow, he brought it up and I said, “Well, I wasn’t going to ask, but…what happened?”
He was in a firefight and thought a hot piece of brass fell inside his body armor. It had probably happened before. But then he couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t hot brass. He caught a bullet in the chest. He was at Kandahar recovering and was about to go back out to his unit. Get shot, heal up, and go back to the fight. There’s a war on. Remarkable.
We walked around and looked at some jets. We looked in the cockpit. We looked at the 20mm cannon that was opened up for some maintenance. He wrote the name of his unit on one of the bombs. We parted ways.
It was one of the best days of my life. I tell my kids to conquer their fear. For years, I couldn’t take my own advice. When I finally volunteered, it was gratifying.
People who thrust out their chin and say they have “no regrets” are either stupid or lying. I have regrets. Here’s one: I should’ve helped at the hospital every day I had two legs to walk on.
I went to war four times with the Bulldogs of the 148th. I’ve still got all my fingers and toes. I figured I’d put them to use. I came up with this idea to run the whole length of the Superior Hiking Trail. It’s fun. I’ve done 15 segments of the trail so far. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful country, right here along the North Shore. I have 250 more miles to go by October 31st. I’m doing this run in support of the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP). Follow this link and you’ll be able to donate directly to WWP via this project I’m calling “North Shore Shmo!” (https://support.woundedwarriorproject.org/individual-fundraising/NorthShoreShmo/)
Showing Kyle the airplanes was the first step. Now I’m taking a few more steps to try to make up for lost time. It feels good, even when I’m going uphill.
Eric “Shmo” Chandler lives in Duluth. Follow his progress at: https://ericchandler.wordpress.com/
(Photo Credit: SSgt Chris Axelson)