It’s been a year and a half since the last post and there are some reasons for that, the most important being it really wasn’t okay to update much about our hospital in Kandahar: I couldn’t talk about the base or the missions or even daily life without producing info that could give our enemies insight or ideas (and we all assumed the base was infiltrated so such concerns weren’t a far off). But in time that deployment ended. Many great things to say but too late to talk about it now.
We got reunited as a family,
and now a year and a half later I’m on a trip from Chicago to Okinawa and the Philippines to participate in an exercise called “Balikatan.” This one is public knowledge and I can discuss it.
(I’m not sure what Cessna would take 10 hrs & 15 min to do this.)
Officially the Okinawan Islands (or Ryukyu Islands) are 150 associated islands made of lava-rock in the West Pacific, about two thousand kilometers south-southwest of Tokyo, the largest one is itself named “Okinawa” and is covered with lovely green forests and grasses and 1.4 million Okinawans and about 60,000 US troops. Okinawa is an island near the tropics (my watch says my exact latitude/longitude is N 26˚ 17’58.3″ & E 127˚ 46′ 51.6″meanwhile a map of the Earth says the Tropic of Cancer is at N 23°26′13.9″). Okinawa is becoming a vacation destination for the Japanese like Hawaii is for us and the Japanese.
Okinawa was one of the MAJOR battles of the Pacific in WWII. Borrowed from “history.com,” Okinawa was “Last and biggest of the Pacific island battles of World War II, the Okinawa campaign (April 1—June 22, 1945) involved the 287,000 troops of the U.S. Tenth Army against 130,000 soldiers of the Japanese Thirty-second Army. At stake were air bases vital to the projected invasion of Japan. By the end of the 82-day campaign, Japan had lost more than 77,000 soldiers and the Allies had suffered more than 65,000 casualties—including 14,000 dead…. The commanding generals on both sides died in the course of this battle: American general Simon B. Buckner by artillery fire, Japanese general Ushijima Mitsuru by suicide. Other U.S. losses in ground combat included 7,374 killed, 31,807 wounded, and 239 missing in action. The navy suffered 4,907 killed or missing aboard 34 ships sunk and 368 damaged; 763 aircraft were lost. At sea and in the air, the Japanese expended roughly 2,800 aircraft, plus a battleship, a light cruiser, and four destroyers, with losses that can be estimated at upwards of 10,000.”
Okinawa’s history is that of an independent place that is smack in the middle of shipping lanes between mainland Japan and Taiwan/China, and about 600’s AD seems to be the reach of what I can find on its [known] past. Being in a strategic location the territory was contested between opposite sides over the centuries, Chinese dynasties, Japanese Shoguns, all the way to WWII.
It’s peaceful now but what lesson I take out of it is that “peace” is achieved. It’s not a natural state of affairs.
It may also be worth mentioning this is not my first trip to Okinawa: Megan, Helen, and I were here 1n 1996. Helen was two months old then, and now she’s in college.
Meg at Okinawa seashore (Nago) 1997
Where Okinawa fits into our (Meg & Paul’s) lives has changed since then. In 1996 I was 29, Meg was younger than that. I had finished Internship and Flight Surgery school and was coming out for my first independent job with the Navy, and Meg was pregnant with with our first child, Helen. We were new at being married and once Helen arrived and Meg came out here new at being parents, and new at exploring the world. Nowadays almost two decades on we have three “babies” (not so “baby-like” any longer) and thanks to the Navy have lived and worked in lots of places. Where once Okinawa was the start of my Navy career, Oki is now perhaps a fond farewell to it –or at least I’m on the last lap of it, I hope.
It’s been a long time since those charmed early days. Today is Sunday, March 20, 2016, and at 0700 hrs the sun was out, the air about 65 degrees, and aside from the swish of trees swaying in gentle Spring zephyrs there were few if any sounds. It was quiet in my BOQ room and quiet outside the long, squat, concrete Bachelor Officers Quarters (BOQ). The morning sky was clear, the parking lot asleep, the Marine Corps base peaceful, and if it was keeping out anything at all, the 8 foot high perimeter fence was likely only a problem for would-be infiltrating Okinawan bunnies or such but not for any human enemies –not like our Hesco barriers and barbed-wire fences in Afghanistan were, and not like those fearsome defense lines were back in the battle of Okinawa in 1945 back when we Americans were the enemies.
The first thing I remembered when waking up was a sense of loneliness I felt upon arriving here in 1996. Something about Okinawa itself, the air, the solitude brought that old feeling back. The thing was reminiscent like a taste or a scent is reminiscent and the loneliness of those first weeks or months in 1996 was a different loneliness from any other I’ve known in other places at other times. It was the loneliness of one’s first day on the job.
After years and years of preparations (college, med school, internship, flight surgery school) the first day of the rest of my life had arrived, and what a bitter embarrassment it would be to me and all my backers if I turned out to be useless. Not only were the Marine Corps intimidating but they expected and deserved a decent doctor for their troops, and I’d better deliver.
Meanwhile, Meg at home in the States was busy with a lonely and intensely consequential occupation of her own, carrying and someday delivering baby #1. I missed her so much and felt wrong about being apart but at least we had no real choice about the matter. The situation was what it was. There was no arguing with either Mother Nature or the U.S.M.C. So we carried on.
In Okinawa in 1996-97 I served as a “flight doc” for HMM-265 (rein), a Marine helicopter squadron that was the air combat element (the “ACE”) for the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). We were “special operations qualified (SOQ). LCOL G.C. O’Neal was our squadron commanding officer, a U.S.N.A. grad, personable, intimidating, muscles on top of muscles and his call sign was “Conan.”
Crew Chief SSGT Leathers
Oki shore from a helo
My “flight surgeon” role with them was conceptually simple: tend to all the guys and their families and ensure every last person was either “mission ready” or being taken care of properly in order to get them back to “mission ready.” Beyond that a flight surgeon was an aviation safety officer, and a primary investigator for any aviation mishaps (we had one / nobody injured). Also I was the Commanding Officer’s eyes and ears, and the pilot’s and air-crew’s personal confidant. And also one does sick call for 4 hrs every morning for the squadron and the camp.
We had our squadron, HMM-265, which was the CH-46 E helicopters you see in the photo above (nicknamed “Phrogs”), plus all the maintenance and support crews, but for being the ACE of the 31st MEU, HMM-265 was also reinforced with a whole bunch of other aircraft, Hueys (UH-1’s), Cobras (AH-1’s), Sea Stallions (CH-53’s, which we called “Shitters”), and Harrier jets (AV-8B’s), and ALL their men and supplies. So it was a lot of people and a lot of action.
The “MEU” is the President’s mechanism for dealing with anything “that absolutely, positively, has to be blown up overnight.” It’s a self-contained, fully operational unit that includes enough Infantry (men + trucks + tanks + artillery) and Aviation (us) and Logistics (“beans, bullets, and band-aids”) to receive a phone call from PODUS (President of the United States) and immediately be on the go to wherever it needs to be (hence its close affiliation with Navy ships) to fight whatever needs to be fought. The 31st MEU was that for the Pacific Theater at that time. That ocean was our ocean, or at least that’s how we felt about it.
Damn I wanted to do a good job. I learned quickly that every individual within that big squadron was essential and any one person failing in their jobs could jeopardize our guy’s lives, and my life too (I flew with them oftentimes). Y’see helicopters (and Harrier jump-jets, which are single engine aircraft) don’t so much fly as they fool physics for long enough to get from point A to point B in the air instead of over the ground, and it takes a ton of grease and hard work to keep the lie in place and functional.
Our big squadron was intense. Conan had everyone working their tuckus’ off, probably because the MEU commander Colonel Umpdesquat above him demanded it, too. But in addition to Conan we had an awesome XO (Major Turner) & OpsO, in fact awesome Marine officers all the way down the line, and loads of awesome, hardworking, tough, enlisted Marines who fixed and tuned-up those birds and who flew in them and did every kind of job required for keeping the squadron humming from before dawn to after dusk.
He and his squadron exemplified the best leadership, mission accomplishment, camaraderie and morale that I’ve known before or since. To a person we shared and believed in the same mission and gave ourselves over to it. Our squadron went out on several deployments to places like Korea, Australia, Vladivostok (well actually I was grounded for Vladivostok – got in a wee bit of trouble) (but all’s well that ends well), and whenever not sailing about the Pacific we had time here on this island.
One essential bit of sanity for me here on the island was a friend I made named “Clancy,” and he introduced me to what became our running / drinking club called The Hash House Harriers (incidentally not the source of the “wee bit of trouble” so cryptically referred to up above. That trouble if you must know stemmed from flying in a medevac helicopter off a ship in the Sea of Japan and into South Korea with an injured patient and subsequently hanging out in Seoul for 4-5 days rather than trucking it back to the coastal city called Pohang, and therefore missing my ship’s movement out of the theater, because I believed the dopes in the Navy liaison office in Seoul who kept telling me every day “Nope, no word from them yet, stay here another day and we’ll try again tomorrow” meanwhile the ACE was sending aircraft to Pohang to pick me up) (I’m still mad at those dopes) [Anyway] Whenever Meg and Helen weren’t here I’d hang with Clancy almost every day and about three times a week we’d go running with “the Hash” and after each run, being sanguineous Irish-Americans Clancy and I would celebrate with a party. Celebrate what? Life, Okinawa, Meg, whatever needed celebratin’. Sometimes we never did find a good reason but that didn’t stop the celebrations.
Party at Clancy’s
Hash House Harriers
Here you can see Clancy (white t-shirt) doing what he did better than any man or woman I have met before or since which was to be a gracious, inclusive, welcoming host, making certain everyone had food and a drink and always looking out that they had a great time. On the right is a photo with a few of the Okinawans after a run –this little social club was the only way we got to meet them. As you can probably tell they were delightful people.
So this morning I got up and went for a run off the base and down past Clancy’s old place, down along the seashore, and wasn’t that glorious. There are parks along the seashore and many Okinawans were up exercising. One family of five was particularly interesting, the Dad had on pads and the Mom was kicking and punching the crap out of them (she was really good) while the three little kids were playing near by, and on my way back I saw Mom playing with a kid while now one of the tiny ones was having her turn to practice.
At the very top of this update you see a photo of three old Okinawan men on the sand practicing Karate with their staffs. One of the old guys had to be in his 70’s. Karate was invented here, don’t you know? Another group of women was up doing yoga on the beach. There was a big race as well, a “Race for Peace,” and not to get too stereotypical but take a look at the flags that were up… hilarious. Like Speed Racer or Pokemon.
Well, that’s more than enough for one update. God Bless us all and if you’ve made it this far, thanks for your interest! Paul