People ask, “Who has inspired you the most?” Among 900 essays in the Captain’s Blog over the past seven years, Sailing with Heroes from 2016 is the most poignant.
On a dark and dreary afternoon, a couple from Portsmouth drove up to the Peninsula to go sailing on the York River. Then they found the skies clearing after two days of rain. Both are retired military, having served in extraordinary ways.
Joy Morris was a combat medic in the US 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 one more challenge to seize. She too has gone Sailing with Heroes she’ll never forget.
Dean Sheridan was a pararescue medic, aka PJ for paramedic jumper. He served in the US Air Force but worked with all branches. “You can look it up,” he said. “We jump behind enemy lines to rescue injured and wounded American soldiers. 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 had 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 without inflection 692.
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. So 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 quietly. “I went in with a SEAL team to clear the dock of explosive charges. The Iraqis had planted them to blow up the fuel operation.”
He deployed in every war since Grenada. “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 just this week 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, and that’s how he came down the dock.
His luck nearly ran out on his 17th combat mission. “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 showed Joy the CDBG “collision course” concept, developed in 18th century sea battles to shoot from one warship to another. Today we engage it to avoid hitting modern boats. I realized Dean knew all about that from flying, but at a much faster rate of decision. I asked if her ever experienced a close call in the air. “Yes, we were flying level when another plane 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.”
Sailing with Other Heroes
We sailed without talking, enjoying the breeze and the solitude. After a prolonged silence, he asked brightly, “Do you remember Jessica Lynch?” I had to think about it. She became 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, “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. Let me tell you, I can’t wait to have grandchildren.” Someday they will discover that their grandfather went sailing with heroes who remain forever on his mind. He 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
Let’s Go Sail
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