Thursday, September 15, 2016
On Sunday, September 11th, I received what is very likely the last medal I will get from the military. My unit gave me the Pennsylvania Meritorious Service Medal. The citation talks about all the things I did for the unit. It was about writing stories, taking pictures and re-enlisting after a quarter century as a civilian.
In other words, it talks about the kinds of things I did which got praise at the time I did them. So the 200 words of praise in Army prose was about the stuff I did right and made someone higher in the chain of command happy.
The things I did in the military that were the most difficult and that I was most proud of were not the kind of things that people get medals for.
In 1973 when I got blinded in a missile explosion, I got no award. Since the explosion happened on a test range in Utah, it was not a combat injury. I recovered my sight and the use of two fingers that were bent and broken in the blast. I will always be thankful for the surgeons who got the wire and other bits of shrapnel out of my eyes, but they had to operate six times to get all the metal out. Facing he next surgery and that feeling of a wire being pulled from my eye was one of the more difficult moments of my life. As was the night after the blast when I overheard a nurse say I would be permanently blind.
There was a moment in Iraq when I got aboard a Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq in a brownout sandstorm so bad we could only occasionally see the other Blackhawk we were flying with. At that moment, I thought about the big turbine engines on the roof of the Blackhawk just above the passenger area and about the big gear box between the engines that drive the big rotor blades. In the crash I imagined, my guts were squeezed like toothpaste out of my Kevlar vest when all that machinery on top of the helicopter crushed everyone inside. The flight was fine. The weather cleared on the way back, and I got the pictures the commander wanted.
I am grateful for the award, but every award reminds of the actual best and worst moments I had in the military, not the ones for which I got the medal.