Soldiers have done their jobs, now it’s our turn

Illustrated by Forest Byrd

The mood was euphoric last Friday night at Albany’s airport. Among the usual hustle and bustle, the hugs and handshakes, of family returning home for the holidays, there was a crowd with a special mission.

Teachers from Greenville High School held a banner that proclaimed in bright letters, “GHS welcomes our hero Luke home.”

Marines saluted and called out “Semper Fi,” the corps’ motto of ever faithful. American flags lined the path Corporal Luke McDermott would follow.

The corporal walked on new legs. He’d been fitted with prosthetics after a roadside explosion in Afghanistan blew off his right leg and the other was amputated.

His mother was the first to hug him. As her hands cradled his neck, her face showed pain and joy, gratitude and pride — all at once.

His father was next, enveloping his son in strong arms, holding tight for a long moment.

What makes a hero?

We’ve been struck, since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, when we’ve talked with those in our midst who have served there, that they don’t see themselves as heroes.

Richard Jadick, who grew up in Slingerlands, was awarded the Bronze Star for “heroic actions,” with a combat “V” for valor for his work in 2004 during the battle of Fallujah. That battle was considered the Marines’ heaviest urban combat since 1968 in Vietnam’s Hue City.

Doctors are usually safe behind combat lines; Jadick set up a field hospital in the midst of the battle.

He told us he doesn’t see himself as a hero; he doesn’t even think of himself as especially brave. He’s a doctor who was saving lives — he was doing his job; that’s all, he says.

Jadick was cited for working “with a total disregard for his own safety.” “It sounds better than it was,” he told us. “I was scared to death. I wanted to cry. I wanted to run under a rock — but I didn’t.

“There’s fear. But then there’s fear of failure. Fear of failure outweighs fear for yourself.” That fear of failure, he said, is a “fear of letting people down, the people you’re out there with. That’s why you do it.”

Jadick wrote a book about his experience called On Call in Hell. One of the people he writes of is Gunnery Sergeant Ryan Shane, a 250-pound Marine who risked his life to bring a fellow Marine to safety in the midst of street fighting. Shane’s insides were scrambled and he faced a long recovery. The Marine he risked his life to save would die. Sergeant Lonny Wells, father of five, died in the ambulance Jadick was using to cart the wounded from the battlefield to his station.

“Lonny Wells was the first Marine to die in my arms, or die in my care. Not the last, but the first,” Jadick writes in his book.

He also describes in the book how a corpsman threw his body across the injured Shane to protect him as a rocket-propelled grenade whistled overhead. “That corpsman tried to cover me with his body,” said Shane. “All those guys were great young heroes. These were everyday Americans, and they were extraordinary.”

McDermott, too, is an everyday American who is extraordinary. A boy from Westerlo, he wanted to join the military after the terrorists’ attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but he was too young, just entering his teenage years.

“I knew the risk going in,” he said. “I always wanted to do something to help out and give back.”

McDermott’s unit was on its way to seek out an improvised explosive device when they hit one they didn’t know about. The IED blew off his right leg and caused severe injury to the bones and arteries in his left leg.

“Everyone keeps saying he’s a hero,” said his mother, Darlene McDermott, “but he says, ‘I’m not a hero; I just did what I’m supposed to do. It’s my job.’”

There are some things you can’t change, Jadick told us: Soldiers will get wounded in a war and some of them will die.

Walt Whitman, who volunteered to nurse wounded soldiers during the Civil War, wrote a poem, published towards the end of that war, called “The Wound-Dresser.”

“An old man bending I come among new faces,” writes the poet who is asked by children to tell about the glories of war. Those are short-lived, says the poet — “like a swift-running river they fade” — while what endures are his memories of the wounded.

“To the long row of cots up and down each side I return,” writes Whitman. He goes on:

I am faithful, I do not give out,

The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,

These and more I dress with impassive hand (yet in my breast a fire, a burning flame).

He concludes, “Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested, Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.”

What can change, what is not inevitable, is how wounds are handled. As a society, we can, like Whitman, make sure that the wounded warriors in our midst are given the help they need, whether the wounds are physical, or mental and emotional. We owe our wounded soldiers respect, and more — the chance to live a good life.

Much is up to the individual. That’s what makes McDermott a hero in our eyes. Without self-pity, he is getting on with his life — walking forward, even as walking is now a challenge.

He describes the process in a straightforward fashion: “Every time I walk,” he said, “I’m thinking, ‘Am I bending my knee enough? Am I taking big enough steps? Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?”

McDermott said the support of his parents and the memories of people back home have helped him move forward.

“It can pretty much be applied to any situation,” he said. “Don’t give up, no matter how hard, or how much a struggle things may be, because it’s always going to get better.”

With that attitude, things will get better, we’re sure. We salute you, Corporal McDermott; you are walking proud for all of us.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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