After roughly an hour's sleep, they dragged me out of the rack. It was a little bit after 10 a.m. I was working nights on the roof, but getting dragged out of the rack was far from unusual on this deployment.
It was my third full deployment to the Mediterranean. I was an E-4 Hospital Corpsman assigned to one of the air wing fighter squadrons. I was a rated Naval Aircrewman and Rescue Swimmer as well, and the only aircrew rated corpsman in the ship's medical department. For a fellow who loved to fly and had chosen Hospital Corps C-School for the sole purpose of expediting a seat in the earliest possible NACCS class, my monopoly on medevac missions was a genuine good deal. Even though it got me dragged out of the rack from time to time.
I pulled on my dungarees and flight deck jersey, which were still standing where I'd left them, and headed on up to medical. Hmm, medevac in the works? Or is it another...
We were deep in the eastern Med, just over the horizon from Lebanon. A couple of weeks earlier the U.S. Embassy in Beirut had been bombed, killing more than fifty and wounding scores. We'd been busy then, and I'd drawn quite a few medical support flights. They were mostly resupply, and we never got close to treating any casualties. We flew a lot of medical supplies into Beirut International, where the MNF was located.
As I hammered up the ladder and headed aft down the second deck starboard passageway I wondered if something else had happened in Beirut. I entered medical and ducked into the admin office. The Senior Chief waved me into his cubbyhole. It was tight in the little office, and a skinny, mean looking Gunnery Sergeant was sitting in the only available chair.
"So you're an 8404 too," said the Senior Chief without preamble. "You've been busy." The Senior Chief was the senior enlisted man in H Division -- the ship's medical department. He'd only joined the ship at the beginning of cruise, replacing a Senior Chief who I got along with very well. This new Senior -- not so much.
I noticed that he was flipping through a personnel record, which was odd, this being sick bay, and that the record was my personnel record, which was also odd, because to the best of my understanding he shouldn't have been able to lay his hands on it.
"That's right, Senior, I went to FMF school while I was waiting for my seat at NACCS. Never served with the Marines though."
The Gunny cleared his throat, and when he spoke his voice came through a bucket of gravel. "Whydja go to Lejeune if you was gonna be an airdale?"
"Didn't want to paint rocks for two months Gunny." There was a flash of something in his eyes. Might have been amusement, might have been contempt.
The Senior chief rolled his eyes. "I'm sure you have your field uniforms on board," he remarked, raising an eyebrow.
"Of course, Senior."
"Well that's your uniform of the day. Shift into it and report to the Gunny in the MARDET spaces. You're going on a little trip."
On my way back to berthing to change I stuck my head in the Flight Surgeon's office. He saw me and held up his hands in surrender. "Not my fault," he said, "you're the only FMF qualified corpsman on board who isn't a fat alcoholic. Don't worry, it's just a supply run."
I must have looked lost, and the Flight Surgeon took pity on me.
"One/Eight (more properly 1/8, but you can't start a sentence with a numeral) just relieved 3/6 but none of them have had their plague shots. We're the only source, so you're going to deliver 1,500 doses. The airport has been getting shelled occasionally and you might get stuck there, so they want a qualified FMF corpsman."
That really didn't make any sense. What would be wrong with sending the vaccine with a MARDET grunt, or just kicking the box out during a quick helo trip ashore?
"Shit," I whined, "am I gonna have to give a thousand jarheads shots?"
"Nah," he said, "you're just the courier. Their corpsmen will give the shots. Don't worry, it'll be fun. They're doing assault landings. Just un-ass, deliver the vaccine, then catch the next flight out."
I have to admit that I perked up at the thought of doing an assault landing in a Phrog. That would be cool. But what was that about getting shelled? Firetruck. Well, I'd been around long enough to know that making sense is no requirement for a navy plan, and that if you keep volunteering for shit you're liable to get volunteered for shit. The upside was more flight time, an assault landing, stretching my legs ashore, and getting a first hand view of how the other half lived. It did sound like fun. For certain values of fun.
Our happy band of brothers waited in the Air Transportation Office (ATO) compartment just aft of the Flight Deck Battle Dressing Station (FDBDS) on the starboard side of the island. A Lance Corporal (E-3), three PFC's (E-2), and myself. I was senior in rank, the Lance corporal was in charge. We were dressed alike in camies, flak jackets, and tin pots with cammo covers. Over the flak jacket we each wore an H-harness and web belt. Clipped to each belt were a canteen, a first aid kit, and two mag pouches holding three 30-round magazines. We were each armed with an M-16A1 stenciled with a white MARDET inventory number on the butt stock. The Gunny had tried to issue me a Colt 1911A1. It's what corpsmen were always issued.
"I'd rather have a rifle, Gunny."
He looked me in the face and held my eyes for two very long heartbeats.
"Get Doc a rifle, Pags."
We made our way to the foul line to port and forward of the island while the helo was on approach. The Marines had their game faces on and I tried to emulate their look of hard competence. It was a little tough to pull off with a white Styrofoam medicine container tucked under my arm.
The Phrog was from the HMM squadron in the LPH supporting the Marines ashore. As it landed I noted the slim, menacing barrel of an M-2 .50 caliber machine gun poking out of the forward starboard crew compartment window. It was painted in (somewhat) glossy Marine green with big white side numbers and full color stars and bars and squadron decals.
We boarded via the rear ramp and I noticed the Marine aircrew were wearing white-taped helmets and regular LPA/SV2 flight gear. No flak jackets. Nothing but nomex and thin aluminum between themselves and any ground fire that came their way.
We lifted and headed east for the beach. Twenty minutes later we made an assault landing at Beirut International Airport. The big helo flared steeply on approach, tandem three-bladed rotors pounding the thick Beirut air into submission. As the mains contacted the tarmac we were up and shuffling toward the ramp. The nose wheel touched and with the Phrog still taxiing forward the crew chief shouted "Go!" We went.
Off the ramp we turned left and ran in a crouching shamble toward a jeep with a tee shirt-clad Marine in the drivers seat. Behind us the Phrog pounded back into the air and accelerated down the runway, then yanked left and away.
I looked around. We'd landed at the "Y" of intersecting runways. The airport was less than impressive; something you'd expect to see in rural Mexico. Larnaca had a more impressive airport.
We boarded the jeep. I was a bit surprised that the Lance Corporal gave me the privilege of the front passenger seat while he and his PFC's piled into the back. The driver glanced at us and roared down the taxiway without a word.
We'd traveled fewer than 50 yards when the driver slammed on the brakes and baled out. "Fuck! Cover!"
It was only then that I realized the sound I'd been hearing was the Hollywood whistling roar of incoming artillery fire. I was a little slow off the mark, and the Marines handily beat me to the shallow ditch alongside the taxiway. They flopped on their bellies while I crouched down and looked back at the jeep. The white Styrofoam med container sat on the floor of the vehicle where I'd left it.
Three big arty rounds landed about a mile away. They weren't very impressive, just big puffs of dust. I stood up straight, intending to rescue the container of vaccine. It was in my charge, after all, and my only assigned job was to deliver it safely.
"GET THE FUCK DOWN, DOC!" It was one of the PFC's. I hesitated for a moment, and then something different happened.
I've tried to describe the experience before, both orally and in writing. It's been more than thirty years and I still haven't found the words. I'm not certain that they exist.
The sound of the second batch of incoming was different. And it was much, much more than mere sound. It was a shrieking, immediate presence that instantly became the entirety of the universe. In that moment, that's all there was. My mind was utterly paralyzed. It wasn't fear, it was simply the inability to function at any level higher than the brain stem.
Fortunately, my brain stem knew just what to do, and it flung my body face and belly down into the ditch.
I'm not entirely certain, but the impression I had then -- which remains burned into my memory -- was that the close round hit before I hit the ground in the ditch. I didn't know it until much later but two other rounds landed about a quarter-mile away on the other side of the runway.
The explosion of the close round didn't sound anything like an explosion. It didn't sound like anything at all, really, because it wasn't sound. I know intellectually that there was sound involved, but that was such a trivial bit player in the experience that it had exactly no meaning at all. The shrieking presence that had become the universe simply and instantaneously expanded. Then, just as quickly, it was gone. I was on my back. My helmet was gone. My eyes and ears and nose and mouth were filled with dust and the reeking stench of explosive. I no longer held my rifle. I felt a quick stab of shame. You never drop your rifle.
I rolled over and looked around. Five helmetless dirty-faced Marines were looking around too. None of us were hurt. None of us were holding our rifles. After some indeterminate time we got up, dusted off, found and donned our helmets and picked up our rifles. Looking around, nothing seemed to have changed. The airport still looked like a third-rate airport. The sun still shone from a lovely blue sky.
The jeep looked different though. I couldn't figure out what it was, but something about it was wrong. We cautiously approached it, crouching, heads on swivels, acutely alert to the possibility of more incoming. The Styrofoam box was on the ground now. I picked it up and examined it. I opened the top and checked the contents. The box was pristine, the vaccine intact.
"Well, fuck," said the dirty-faced, tee shirted Marine.
The driver and passenger seats had disappeared from the jeep. They were just gone. As was the steering wheel and shift levers. Only tiny, shiny-ended stubs remained where once before had been seats and controls. Otherwise the jeep was completely intact.
Another jeep roared up and two Marines baled out, both Corporals.
"You guys okay?" We were.
"You the doc? That the vaccine?" Yes and yes.
"C'mon then." One of the Corporals waved to my companions. "You guys stay here, I'll be back for you in five minutes. And stay the fuck down."
An hour later the dirty-faced, tee shirted Marine escorted the MARDET Marines and I to the passenger terminal. He wore his cammy blouse over the tee shirt this time. I'd learned that his name was Shitbird and that he was a Prive, an E-1. There was a story there but I didn't ask.
As we waited for the Phrog to arrive we talked a bit of Marine talk. I was mildly surprised to realize that I'd developed a bit of the lingo. Not a lot, but some. We five from the carrier were a lot more comfortable together now than we'd been in the morning. It was nothing to remark on, it just was. We talked about women and getting drunk. No one said a word about artillery. Our close call didn't really mean anything.
The Phrog came in and made a normal, non-assault landing near the base of the control tower. I shook my head, wondering why. We climbed aboard, and twenty minutes later were back aboard the carrier. I still had time for four hours of rack ops before I had to show for night-check on the roof.
It would be a quiet night on the roof. There would be no scheduled flying. The last recovery began at 2030, and most of the dozen planes aloft would get daylight traps or pinkies. As I prowled the flight deck just before recovery I noted that, as usual off the coast of Lebanon, most of the aircraft were armed. The Alert Intruders and Corsairs were loaded with Snakeyes and Rockeyes, and even a couple of Vikings had cluster bombs hung on the wings. The Tomcats were loaded two-two-four with Phoenix, Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles. The Alert SLUFs wore 'winders, too.
The Air Boss announced a fuel spill on EL-1, and I hastened over in case my services might be needed. Behind me the first F-14's began to land.
As it turned out, the spill was minor. And after a few minutes they sent the elevator down to the hangar level where up jets would be swapped for down jets in the endless reshuffling of aircraft and space.
Behind me another Tomcat slammed down in the gear. There was a sharp, grating sound, enough different than the usual sound of an arrested landing that I began to turn to look.
For the second time this day a larger-than-life presence appeared. Something pushed me hard on the right hip. It was less than a blow but more than a force. It spun me completely around and deposited me on hands and knees near the safety wires guarding the absent deck edge elevator. A moment later I saw a big splash in the water a few hundred feet off the starboard side of the ship. I realized instantly that I was unharmed, and scrambled to my feet, slightly embarrassed. "WTF?," I wondered. I reached down and discovered that my Unit-1, or aid bag, was missing. I usually wore it strapped to my waist and riding on my right hip. And that's where it had been a moment ago.
A yellow shirt Chief grabbed me. "You okay Doc?" A moment later the Air Boss' voice boomed out over the 5MC. "YOU OKAY DOC?"
"I'm fine," I yelled to the Chief as I waved a big thumbs-up toward Pri-Fly.
"ARRIGHT, BEAR A HAND!" Yelled the Boss. "LETS GET THAT TOMCAT OUT OF THE GEAR AND DO A FOD WALKDOWN. WE'VE STILL GOT PLANES TO RECOVER!"
I looked to where a crowd was forming around a Tomcat in the landing area a few dozen yards away. It was cocked over on the stub of its right main mount, wheel and part of the strut missing in action.
"Shit," said the Chief, I thought that main mount killed you Doc!"
"Nah, I'm fine," I replied. "I need a new Unit-1 though."
A few months later we were all back on the beach and settling down to shore side routine. The squadron had a post-deployment awards ceremony and I wasn't surprised to find I'd be an awardee. Doubtless a gold star in lieu of a third NAM. Nice to be recognized for doing an adequate job, but no big deal. The ceremony would be equal parts pain in the ass and amusing. If you've ever seen U.S. Naval aviation units in formation, you know what I mean.
I was wrong, though. It was a big ceremony and included the other airwing Tomcat squadron as well as the Intruder and Hawkeye squadrons. The outgoing CTF-60 himself, a Rear Admiral no less, presented the awards. Everyone who'd made the deployment got a Navy Expeditionary Medal. A lot of guys got a lot of awards. It had been a pretty eventful and important deployment, and we'd done a lot of good work.
When it was my turn to front and center I got the NEM and NAM I'd expected, but I also received the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V. "...for conspicuous gallantry while delivering emergency medical supplies...under direct and withering enemy heavy artillery fire...coolly safeguarding critical supplies even as the vehicle he was traveling in was destroyed..."
The Admiral was nice enough not to remark on my dropped jaw and the drool running down the front of my Dress Whites.
I understood that the combat award I received had nothing to do with combat or valor or courage. It was about service and branch rivalries more than anything else. I feel a little bit dirty about the award, but not terribly dirty. I'd been hit with the poopy end of the stick enough to realize that in the navy, things balance out in strange ways. I'd been caught in a bullshit explosion, but it was rose-scented bullshit.
When I think of that day and that award one fact is ever present. In October of that year 241 of the Marines and Sailors at Beirut died real deaths in the real world at the hands of real terrorists. Which puts the bullshit in perspective.
From time to time over the years I've thought back to that interesting day when I had two near-misses. What was the significance? What did it all mean, that I'd been so close to death twice in a span of only nine hours?
Well, like a Chief once told me, such things aren't near-misses. They're Misses. Period. And if they mean anything at all, understanding the meaning is far, far above my pay grade. It's an amusing story, but that's all it is.