Sailing with Heroes
On a dark and dreary afternoon, a couple from Portsmouth drove up to the Peninsula to go sailing on the York River, only to find the skies clearing after two days of rain. They are both retired military, having served in extraordinary ways.
Joy Morris was a combat medic in the Army and was quick to qualify her work. “I did a lot of training of other medics, mostly stationed in Germany. Now I’m a licensed practical nurse, working on my degree to become a registered nurse.” She had never sailed before, but she handled the wheel as if it was one more challenge to seize.
Dean Sheridan was a pararescue medic, or PJ for pararescue jumper. He was in the Air Force but worked with all branches. “You can look it up. We jump behind enemy lines to rescue injured and wounded Americans. I worked three tours in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan. We operate on the ground, in the air and on the sea.” He said this with pride but without the least tone of bragging, like an accountant explaining a balance sheet.
“The idea started in the 1940s in Burma to rescue downed pilots during World War II. By the 1980s it morphed into ground rescue operations during combat.” A Navy helicopter flew overhead and he described its features. I asked how many jumps he made and he said 692. I was floored. Joy interjected with a smile, “He’s still mad that he didn’t get to 700.” Dean qualified the number by saying, “Only 18 were combat jumps. I jumped in Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. One time we had to jump at night behind the lines to rescue two SEALS wounded in combat. We landed within 500 meters, but it turned out to be in an active land mine site. We had to pick our way carefully through the mines to get them.”
We sailed past the Yorktown fuel dock, where four pumps used to take gas and diesel from ships to the Virginia Fuel Farm behind the USCG Training Center. “Those fuel pumps remind me of going into Basra,” Dean said softly. “I went in with a SEAL team to clear the dock of explosive charges that Iraqis had planted to blow up the fuel operation.”
“Beginning in the Eighties, I missed Grenada but if American fireworks went off anywhere in the world, I was there. I was lucky. My leg got injured and now I need to care for it. I had the last bit of shrapnel removed from my hip. They wouldn’t let me keep it since shrapnel is considered a biological hazard.” He walks with the use of cane.
His luck nearly ran out on his 17th combat jump. “This was a static jump, where the chute opens automatically after you jump out of the plane. I looked up and instead of seeing the canopy I saw only the streamer. I got ready to pull my reserve chute but then the main chute finally opened.”
How much time did you have? “This was at 3,500 feet, so I’d say six seconds.” How much time did you have to pull the reserve chute? “Another two seconds.” Then what? “I made it, I landed without injury. But as I gathered up my chute I felt something was wrong. I had urinated in my pants.”
I was showing Joy the CDBG “collision course” concept that was used in 18th century sea battles to shoot from one warship to another. Today it’s used to avoid hitting modern boats. I realized Dean knew all about that from flying, but his timeframe was severely compressed. I asked if ever experienced a close call in the air. “Yes, we were flying level when another plan came up to our elevation on a collision course. It came within 150 meters before we both broke off.” How much leeway did you have? He thought for a moment. “1 to 1-1/2 seconds.”
After a prolonged silence, he asked brightly, “Do you remember Jessica Lynch?” I had to think about it and remembered that she was the first American POW rescued from Iraq. “I led the PJ operation to rescue her and three others.” She was controversial for accidentally (or stupidly) crossing enemy lines, but Dean was diplomatic. “She went one way when she should have gone the other way.”
An hour later, with Joy doing magnificently in choppy seas, I mentioned to Dean that Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that serving on the front lines of the Civil War was the highlight of his famous life, “the top.” Did he ever get bored now? “Yes,” he said simply. “There’s no adrenaline rush like dealing with someone who’s trying to kill you.”
We got to talking about children. “I have a son who’s 32 and lives in Chile with his wife. I can’t wait to have grandchildren.” Someday they will discover that their grandfather earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star for Valor, and seven Purple Hearts.
“I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.” –Oliver Wendell Holmes
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