Posts Tagged ‘heroes’

Profile of a Hero: Harry Kirkland, USMC


Harry Kirkland giving my son his first haircut.

This is supposed to be a farm blog, not an obituary column, but I have to write this one.

Harry Kirkland was my barber during both my tours at Sheppard.  He ran the “Hair Force” shop just outside the gate until he sold the shop and told me he was going on a cross-country motorcycle ride to enjoy a true retirement.  I missed our times together – walking in his door and asking “Harry, how are you?”  To which he’d always answer, “Pat, it’s a beautiful day to be alive.”

We hadn’t heard from him for a while, and when I tried to call him, his phone number had been disconnected.  I’d written him, but never received a reply.  A few weeks ago, we received our Christmas letter back marked “Deceased.”  I found his obituary here. He died just a few days before I left Sheppard.  It pains me that I didn’t know and missed his funeral.  The obituary is short – it’s probably as he’d want it, but I want to brag on him a bit more, because Harry lived a much fuller life than that obituary told.

Harry signed up for the Marines during the Korean war, before his 20th birthday.  He was a combat engineer but during our first few meetings he assured me he’d never been in “the heavy action.”  Over the next several years, I’d hear him talking with other older vets and trust me, he’d been in the thick of it: like the time when his position was overrun by North Korean and Chinese infantry, or his first night on the front when he spent most of it in a trench with mortar rounds landing beside him.  When I asked him, he’d say, “Well, Pat, that was scary.  But I had it a lot better than most.”  That was vintage Harry.  No matter what happened to him, he would say, “The Lord has blessed me more than I deserve.”

During the war, he started cutting folk’s hair “for something to do,” and he kept cutting hair after he got back from Korea and worked his way up on the Railroad, serving as a fireman, conductor, and freight engineer.  When the war started in Vietnam, he signed up again and served in combat as an NCO, not because he had to but “because, Pat, my country needed me.”

Harry returned from his second war and went back to work on the Railroad, and eventually retired from there and started up the shop “for something to do.”

Harry was married to one woman his whole life.  When she got sick and confined to a wheelchair, and then to bed, he cared for her.  He never complained, and never missed an opportunity to tell me how much he loved her and felt he didn’t deserve someone so special.  When she died was one of the few times I saw him visibly sad.  They’d been married for 35 years.  When I told him how much I was impressed by his devotion to her, he reminded me how blessed he considered himself to have been able to do it.

Harry and Jo raised four kids in Randlett, OK.  He loved them and made sure I knew how precious kids were.  One of their sons had been in an accident many years before and was  mentally handicapped.  Harry was so proud of him, and would brag about both his accomplishments and his heart.  “Pat, it’s not easy, but the Lord has blessed me more than I deserve.”

Harry kicked cancer’s butt.  Three times, including once from the lungs.  He’d had enough surgery and chemo to have plenty to complain about, but he never did.  And he said he felt pretty good – not like a teenager, but good enough to take up skydiving with the “Over 60” club.

Harry lived a full life.

Harry was not only my barber, but a true friend and a mentor.  I’d often stop by just to say hello, whether I needed a haircut or not.  When I had a tough problem or an ethical dilemma, I’d often run it past him.  Sometimes he’d help me find an answer, and sometimes he’d just listen.  Often, he’d take a deep breath and say, “You know, Pat, that reminds me of the time…”  Harry had a way of putting the problems of the day in perspective.  When I went to the Pentagon for a high-stakes interview for a special assignment, Harry  wished me luck, and said he’d pray for me.  He meant it.  He gave me a silver dollar to bring with me to remind me of that.  When I got the assignment, he was as proud of me as if I was one of his sons, and would never miss the opportunity to brag about me to other clients.  When we lost two pilots in a crash and I was exhausted from trying to console others, Harry was one of the ones who consoled me.

Some of my former students will remember that I kept a stack of Harry’s business cards on my desk.  Not because he gave an excellent haircut, but because he was a better counselor than most folks with PhDs and certificates.  When students were dealing with overwhelming stress and often in jeopardy of being washed out of training, instead of sending them to Dr Pittner, I’d often tell them to get a haircut.  Harry would talk them down, then give them one of his silver dollars.  There’s more than one pilot flying today that owes his wings to a barber.  He kept photos and newspaper clippings of many of them on a bulletin board behind the cash register in the shop.

I last saw Harry in 2010.  He had sold his shop and told me about his plans for the motorcycle trip.  His first stop was the Rocky Mountains.  “I’d really like to see them again.”  I had a feeling he was ill again, but he wouldn’t tell me.  On our last meeting, I asked him again how he was doing and he answered as always, “Pat, it’s a beautiful day to be alive.”  He died February 19th of the following year at the age of 76.  I hope I can live as full and honorable a life as he did.

Semper Fi, Harry.  Friends like you remind me that the Lord has blessed me more than I deserve, and it’s a beautiful day to be alive.

A Nickel on the Grass

Traditionally, when we gather to remember a fellow military aviator who has “flown West,” we throw a nickel on the grass as we leave.  There are a lot of stories for why we do this, but below is the one I like best.

It started in the Korean War, or maybe even years before (we know it was no later than the 50s because that’s when phone calls went from a nickel to a dime).

When a fighter pilot would leave on a particularly dangerous mission (in peacetime or combat), he’d toss a nickel on the grass by the aircraft.  That way, if he didn’t come back, his buddies would be able to make “the call” to his loved ones.  Along the lines of bringing an umbrella to a picnic, or buying life insurance, the superstition was that if your buddies had the money to make the call, they wouldn’t need to.

The tradition sparked a song, “Throw a Nickel on the Grass” (warning – this contains some profanity), which in turn earned a place in other poems and songs that included the reference.

Thursday, I was far away from the squadron when I learned of the death of Luc Gruenther, another aviator I consider one of “my guys.”  I toasted him and threw my nickel alone.

There are far too many nickels on the grass.


Profile of a Hero: Major Luc “Gaza” Gruenther

On January 28th, during a training mission off the coast of Italy, Luc “Gaza” Gruenther’s F-16 fighter went down in bad weather.  His body was found several days later after a massive search by Italian and US personnel and assets.

Luc leaves behind a wonderful wife, Cassy, who is expecting the birth of their first child in the next couple weeks.  Luc and Cassy were a vital part of our squadron at a previous assignment when Luc (we called him “SHIN” back then) was a FAIP.  This is where most folks stop the story.  “What’s a FAIP?” they ask.

I can give you a short official description.  FAIPs are “First Assignment Instructor Pilots,” guys and gals who, immediately after finishing pilot training, get selected for instructor training, then spend the next three years teaching students before being assigned to front-line weapons systems.

That description, though accurate, just doesn’t do the FAIP moniker justice.  At Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT), FAIPs were the backbone of the organization.

It wasn’t just because folks like SHIN would throw down three sorties a day in a greenhouse-like cockpit that regularly exceeded 140 degrees in the North Texas sun.  It wasn’t just because they did the workhorse jobs in the flight while us graybeards held the line as assistant gradebook officers.  It wasn’t just because they were the repositories of knowledge, keeping us old guys honest.  And it wasn’t just because they were the Snack-Os… though to be honest, that was a lot of it.

No, FAIPs were the backbone of ENJJPT, because like the LPA (Lieutenants’ Protective Association) in most operational squadrons, the “FAIP Mafia” brought energy and life into the squadron, reminding us one-eyed old fat men why we were here in the first place – to get the business done.  FAIPs were the first to raise their hands for anything, whether it was jumping into an empty seat, spending extra hours to help a struggling student study for tomorrow’s checkride, hanging out well past formal release to get the schedule finalized and the gradebooks square, volunteering for yet another cross-country, or leading a busload of school kids on a tour.  They were the ones organizing the squadron party, then flipping burgers at it.  They were the ones kicking the other wing’s butt in every organized sport, then leaving us with bruises that night at the crud table.  Best of all, they were the ones who reminded us how much we loved our job.

This is how I remember SHIN.  He was a standout FAIP, easy to pick out of the crowd and not just because of his physical presence.  SHIN was absolutely, 100% “in” for whatever he was doing at the time.  First in/last out in the squadron whether it was as a line IP or in check section, SHIN had a contagious energy that infected not just his students but also the crustiest “seasoned” IP.  He was a tireless volunteer for everything, not in some lame attempt to make himself look good, but because he wanted to help out.  When our leadership got together to talk about a project that absolutely needed to succeed, SHIN’s name invariably rose to the top of our list.  He was guy I could point newbies to and say, “Follow him.”

What made him especially memorable is that he not only excelled at the heavy duties we gave him, but did it all with a true cheerfulness.  It wasn’t a pasted-on smile, but something that came from within.  The guy was a poster child for positive attitude.  One of the best memories I have of SHIN involved that outlook on life, and it wasn’t even at ENJJPT.  It happened after he and Cassy had left ENJJPT for the F-16, and while at training, their apartment caught fire.  I remember calling SHIN to see how he and Cassy were doing, and though I don’t remember the details of the conversation that well, what I do remember is that the guy  didn’t sound like someone who had lost anything.  As always, he had that positive attitude, an attitude that was contagious even through a phone line.  I’ve counseled more than enough folks to know when they’re putting on an act, and he wasn’t.  He was genuinely happy, and had no worries about how they’d get through this challenge.  I had called to see how we could help, and instead, he’d helped me.  Luc in a nutshell.

That’s how I’ll remember Luc:  Big smile on his face, moving forward to greet folks and energizing them into action.

The loss of Luc has hit our family hard – our immediate family and our extended Air Force family.  It’s even harder because he is the third former member of our squadron we’ve lost in as many years.  Flying fighters is a dangerous business.

Remember Luc.  Remember all the wonderful men and women like him we’ve lost in the service to our nation over almost two and a half centuries.  But please also remember the families.  Since the loss of Luc, I’ve told several of my comrades in arms that we need to recognize that the families are the ones who really sacrifice, not us. As I heard a chaplain say at another funeral a couple weeks ago, “We volunteer. They get drafted.”  In one of the most famous stories of sacrifice in the Bible, we should realize that Isaac had the easy job. The toughest role in that story was Abraham, who put his loved one on the altar. That’s what a servicemember’s wife, husband, kids, and parents do every time he or she straps that jet on, shoulders a ruck and rifle, or steps out on a deployment.  It took me way too long to realize that in my career, and I wish I had learned it earlier.  It’s humbling that I often get thanked by folks for my service – but it’s our families that truly deserve recognition.

Please join me in praying for Luc’s family, especially Cassy and their soon-to-be born daughter, Serene.  If you would like to post a remembrance or contribute financially, the family has established a website for that:

———— UPDATE ———-

The National Red River Valley Association – the “River Rats” – of which Luc was an active member (as am I), in conjunction with its charitable arm, the Air Warrior Courage Foundation (AWCF), has established another way to donate.  Through their 501(c)3 organization, they have established a college 529 to accept tax deductible contributions for his daughter’s college education.

The Rats pass on the following instructions:

It is very important to follow the directions below, particularly the “In Memory…” verbiage.

All contributions are tax deductible.

There are two ways to give.

1. Send a check to the AWCF, P.O. Box 877, Silver Spring, MD 20918. In a
note or on the check say “In Memory of Major Lucas “Gaza” Gruenther.”

2. Using a credit card. Go to our home page at .
On the Home page is a DONATE button. Click it and it will take you to a page
with a GIVE DIRECT button. Click it and fill in the blanks. In the COMMENTS
block put in “In Memory of Major Lucas “Gaza” Gruenther”.