The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing -- Edmund Burke

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The Sound of Rotor Blades

Michael R. Bowen, MD

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Michael R. Bowen, MD

mbowen@americasvoices.org       
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"Be convinced that to be happy means to be free and that to be free means to be brave.  Therefore do not take lightly the perils of war."
-- Thucydides (455-400 BC ), Athenian General, Greek historian and author of "The History of the Peloponnesian War".

June 6, 2003


Every guy needs a good workbench, preferably in the basement or garage.  When I was stationed at Camp Lejeune, the climate made a garage setup practical.  I could work on my projects with the big doors open, thereby keeping one eye or ear on my kids at the same time.

Every so often we'd hear the thudding whop-whop of approaching helicopter blades, as the Marines flew their CH-46 or their big Sea Stallion birds over.  The children would always run outside for a look, especially since sometimes the big choppers would come over quite low, and the crew would wave to them.  After I met the Sergeant Major, I thought of him and David every time that happened.

The Navy has always been short on physicians.  The active duty, dependent, and retired population at Camp Lejeune would normally require fifteen or more primary care internists, and we had 5.  Since our primary mission was care of the active duty Marines and sailors, and next in line were the active duty dependents, retirees often got the short end of the stick.  Whenever our backlog became too severe, the clinic would be declared closed to retirees.  Of course, the person who made that decision was never the young medical officer who had to see the faces of the veterans of Okinawa, Tarawa, and Khe Sanh as he turned them away.  Like my brother physicians, I would squeeze them in wherever I could until someone complained of congestion in the clinic, and I would be called on the carpet.

The Sergeant Major was one of these retirees.  A Marine helicopter crew chief, he served in Vietnam and also with HMX-1, flying the President.  That gleaming helicopter bringing the President to the White House from Camp David—that was the Sergeant Major's bird.  He came to the emergency room with what turned out to be a minor problem, and I was called to authorize his referral to a civilian facility.  Not having the heart to turn away another veteran, I told the emergency room physician to have him come by the clinic in the morning.

Have you ever been surprised by the fruit of what you thought was a very small kindness?

The Sergeant Major's problem was disposed of in a very few minutes, but while he was at the clinic he took the time to ask a few questions about the doc.  Finding out that I liked to fish, he told me to come out to his farm anytime and fish his pond.  This I of course did, finding wonderful fishing for large and gullible bass.  The wonderful fruit of my small kindness was that he persuaded me to try fly fishing, beginning a passion which has stayed with me through the years…. but that's another story.

I began to bring my children, and before long the Sergeant Major had forsaken his fishing rod to spend the time with my children while I fished.  I'd walk up to the house as dusk approached to find him sitting, chuckling, in a lawn chair watching them playing.  But the toys they were playing with were the toys of my own childhood:  Davy Crockett coonskin caps, Gunsmoke gun and holster sets, gyroscopes, hula hoops in mint condition, a strange blast from the past.

"Some pretty old toys", the Sergeant Major said.  "Looks like you remember 'em."  Yes, I said, I sure did, and I asked about his kids.

He'd had two sons; the eldest was a lawyer of some sort, and very different from his father.  He never came to share his dad's love of fishing and hunting, and seems to have grown farther away from him in adulthood.  He lived not too far away, in the same state, but they rarely saw him.

But David was dad's best buddy.  He wanted nothing more than to be where dad was, doing what dad did.  His father told of a fishing trip which turned into a grim test of endurance, anchored in a rowboat in the middle of a lake as wind and sleet drilled through their ponchos.  David's lips were turning blue, but he smiled up at his father and said, through chattering teeth, "Fun, huh Dad?"—and meant it.  It was David's toys my children played with.

Naturally, David joined the Marines.  As luck would have it, Father and son were sent to Vietnam at the same time.  The Sergeant Major had a fairly safe billet in Saigon, but David was a grunt in a rifle platoon.  This, I thought, would be about the time the Sergeant Major's wife's hair turned white.

Anyway, one day David got liberty and hitchhiked to Saigon to see his dad.  The Sergeant Major got him a hot shower, a hot meal, and a night in a real bed with clean sheets.  Next morning he took him to see the chaplain.  When it was time to leave, the chaplain said, "David, do you like to drink beer?"  "No, sir", David answered.  "But the guys in my platoon do."  So the chaplain gave him a case of Schlitz to take back to his firebase.  The Sergeant Major made David exchange his battered flak jacket for his own, which was practically new.  Then he took him over to Highway 1 to hitch a ride back to his unit.  "I left him standing at the side of the road, wearing my new flak jacket, the case of beer on his shoulder."

"It was 1968.  I never saw him again."

Years later, on temporary duty in Washington, I went with a friend to visit the Wall.  We looked up David's name in the directory and found it in the polished black stone.  Dressed in our summer white uniforms, we stood before the name as I told David's story.  When I finished we turned to find that a small crowd had gathered, listening silently and sneaking photographs.  Somewhere in somebody's album there is that picture of us, and David's story will be retold whenever the album is taken out.  Which is as it should be.

So when the thudding of rotor blades brings my children outside to see, I think how blessed America has been to have men like David and the Sergeant Major.  In so very many other countries, that sound still sends children running in terror.  I can't repay those men for what they gave us, but I can remember them when I hear that sound.  It's the Sound of Freedom.

 

Copyright © Copyright © 2020 by Michael R. Bowen, MD & America's Voices, Inc.  All rights reserved.
Dr. Michael Bowen, a former Naval officer, has a private medical practice in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.  He writes the weekly column
"The Basics" and the occasional guest column "Mixed Reviews" for America's Voices, a conservative political opinion and educational web site.  His columns also appear in other popular Internet sites, including Opinionet.com and Enterstageright.com.  E-mail Dr. Bowen at mbowen@americasvoices.org.

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