Sunday, April 25, 2010
20 years flies by fast
I meant to write this last weekend to commemorate an unusual anniversary. I was busy Saturday and felt like dookie on Sunday, and then it was back to work, and it's become increasingly hard to write during the week for me.
Anyways....April 17, 2010 marked the 20th anniversary of a rather significant event in my life. It's not just every day you get to say you helped save someone's life....
April 17, 1990---Goeppingen, Germany
I already knew the day was going to be a long one. We got up around 4AM to drive the 2 hours up Autobahn 8 to Karlsruhe. We had to meet up with the other members of the 285th Military Police Company for weapons qualifications at the range. The day started off colder than expected, with frost on the ground. During the course of the day at the range it alternated between hail, rain, and then finally bright sunshine and almost 80 degrees.
It was the usual litany of hurry up and wait, typical Army stuff, waiting your turn to go shoot on the firing line, a cacophony of rifle & pistol shots ringing out all day punctuated by a never-ending series of flyovers by jets of various form and function. I saw F/A-18 Hornets, F-16 Falcons, Mirage 2000's, RF-4 Phantoms, and Panavia Tornadoes. Given that we were a mere 40 miles from the French border and there were several NATO bases within easy flying time, the aircraft could have been Belgian, French, American, Dutch, German, English, Canadian, Italian, Swiss, Danish.....you get the picture. Several allied air forces fly similar aircraft within NATO.
Just prior to 1600 (4PM to you civilian types) we were released for a couple hours to run back to the base where headquarters was, in order to get some chow and relax for a bit before reconvening at the range for the Night Fire Exercise. I piled into an olive drab VW van, that most ubiquitous of Army transport in Germany, with two other members of my platoon and we headed off, looking disheveled, wrinkled, dirty, and tired.
At 1607 hours, 16,000 feet over Karlsruhe, two CF-18 Hornets from the Royal Canadian Air Force's 439 Squadron were engaged in air combat maneuvering training and collided. One of the pilots, Captain Kirk Leuty, was killed instantly, while the other, Captain Reg "Bull" DeCoste, ejected. According to a fellow pilot, Captain Tom Rowan, "On the turn in after fights on, they both made several attempts to miss each other but kept mirroring each others' moves. Reg said it was like walking down a hallway and when you try to avoid a guy coming the other way, he turns the same way you do. At over 1000 knots of closure the time just got too short. Reg's jet was in a max G pull-up when they hit and his wingtip went through poor Kirk's cockpit from below. "
Meanwhile, three miles below the collision, a van carrying Pete Adams, Dennis Castoldi, and myself was navigating rush hour traffic when Pete leaned over, punched my leg and said "Holy shit, Ski. look at that!" The "that" in question was a fireball corkscrewing down in a flat spin with the gray nose of a fighter jet sticking out of it. Dumbfounded, all I could do was stare with an open mouth as it hit the ground & exploded a few hundred yards away.
We all three knew that we had to get to the crash scene and try to render some sort of assistance. While Pete drove, me and Dennis scanned the sky for any parachutes. Lo and behold, we spotted a lone 'chute coming down damn near in front of us. We turned on our emergency flashers to warn vehicles behind us and watched as the pilot narrowly missed an overpass bridge and landed heavily in the middle lane of Autobahn 5, almost being struck by a passing Mercedes.
Pete slewed the van sideways to block traffic, and me and Dennis ran towards the pilot, first aid kit in hand and rifles slung over across our backs. Bear in mind, I'm 20 years old and had never used my first aid training before. Ten thousands thoughts are running through my head, chief among these was "God don't let this guy be a bloody mess" and "Please let him be conscious and able to speak English". He was intact, in great pain, and I instantly saw from the red maple leaf on his flight suit that he was Canadian. He'd broken both heels on impact, had burned his hand in the ejection, and was starting to drift into shock. I think he had bruised some ribs too.
Long story short, Dennis and I treated him as best we could with limited resources while Pete directed traffic. A few minutes later we were joined by a passing German combat medic who'd been driving by. At about that same time the first frantic German Polizei units arrived, and even though all German cops can speak English, the poor guy I was talking to was so worked up he forgot his English skills at about the same time I found out that I spoke more German than I realized, and was able to answer his questions through Captain DeCoste as to whether either aircraft was carrying any munitions for the crash responders to worry about. They didn't, much to his relief. I kept talking to Bull to keep him calm, glossing over his repeated questions about his wingman (I had no answers to give him in all honesty) and learning that he was from Quebec and had a wife & three young daughters. I told him that my family was from Toronto and Halifax and we made some small talk until he was strapped into a gurney & put into an ambulance.
Total time from crash occurrence to Reg being driven to the hospital by the Notartz (German EMT First Responders) was perhaps 20 minutes. It seemed like 20 hours.
We were released from the scene, and drove back to base to finally eat. We let the company Operations Sergeant know that we'd just been in an international incident and that he'd probably be getting a call from the Polizei soon. Rather than a pat on the back from the command, we spent about an hour later that night separetaed from each other writing sworn statements as to what happened to see if our storied all corroborated events and to make sure we didn't do anything wrong. No "attaboys" till the Army and the unit covered its own ass, or course.
Word has it that we were put in for the Soldier's Medal, an award given for saving a life, but that someone shot down that idea because "they're MP's and that's what MP's do, save lives". Excuse me, but we were off-duty, driving from the rifle range, and were nowhere near our usual jurisdictions. Hell, we usually worked for US Customs....but I digress. Then they tried to put us in for the Army Commendation Medal, which some other smartass scrapped because "they didn't award ARCOM's to soldiers under E-5" (we were all the rank of E-4 at the time), and when someone tried to at least get us an Army Achievement Medal, they just further swept us under the rug and awarded us a Military Police Regimental Coin and a nice letter from the Commandant of the Military Police Corps. I can no longer find the picture of me receiving my coin, but here's Dennis Castoldi getting his, with Pete Adams next to him. I was to Pete's left.
I never saw Reg again. I'm told that he returned to flight duty after awhile and I rotated back the States less than 6 weeks later. It was a long time, though, before I didn't flinch slightly whenever I heard a fighter fly overhead. I've tried to find Reg DeCoste a few times over the past 20 years, just to let him know that he's still thoughts about, and have sent a couple emails to addresses I thought were his. I'm not sure if he ever got the mails. Maybe he just wants to forget the incident. I dunno. But I still think about it, and I still talk to Dennis on Facebook. Of all the things I've done in my life, helping a guy get back to his family is one of my prouder achievements.
Ironically, the same weekend of the anniversary, on the exact date in fact, the F/A-18 Hornets of the US Navy's Blue Angels were performing over Charleston Harbor. I was going to go watch, but I'm not so sure I really wanted to see Hornets that day.
In memory of Captain Timothy Kirk Leuty, RCAF.... 12-24-59 to 4-17-90