What I Learned from Listening to Heroes by Mike Gaston-VAC Pilot

Veterans Airlift Command pilots and aircraft transported wounded warriors and support staff from San Antonio to Las Cruces on Friday March 25 so they could participate in the annual Bataan Death March Memorial hike through the White Sands Missile base.
My passengers were two Army and one Air Force enlisted men from the 59th Warrior Transition Battalion and a physical therapist from their unit. We left San Antonio in a flight of two, our Cessna 340 and a Cessna 414. We stayed a flight of two until we reached Pecos, TX, where I decided to get more gas to cope with the un-forecast 55knot headwind and the guys decided we were short on Mexican food.
The FBO in Pecos gave us the keys to his old Suburban and directed us to La Fiesta Restaurant. There Gabriela steered the men to the ‘Mexican Chicken Fried Steak’, a La Fiesta specialty. This masterpiece of culinary art hung over the sides of the plate, but my men were up to the task at hand and laid waste to the paper thin beef patty coated with abundant fried batter and pepper sauce. Sounds terrible, but is actually pretty good.
Back to the airport and ready to go Las Cruces. Before we left, the FBO presented each of us with honorary sheriff’s badges representing the “Law West of the Pecos” enforced by the legendary Judge Roy Bean.
Over lunch I learned that Oscar, the squad leader, was from Hollywood, CA and has been to Afghanistan once and Iraq twice on a striker team. He is responsible to make sure his 16 man squad in San Antonio is getting all the support they have available from the various resources and that they are following their rehabilitation plans.
Mark, the physical therapist, is retired from the Navy after a career as a corpsman and physical therapist and is a civilian in the program in San Antonio. His wife is an Air Force surgical trauma nurse, who has completed three tours in Iraq. Mark just completed a program to teach how to use a Segway to candidates who need it for mobility. The Segway Company has donated 1,000 of the two wheeled units to the program.
Justin is from Greenville, TX and was in Iraq on a 101st striker team. He climbed up front in the right seat on the trip from Pecos to Las Cruces. I thought he wanted to fly the airplane, but he was asleep in ten minutes. The man can eat an entire Mexican chicken fried steak, but he can’t stay awake afterwards.
Marcus is an Air Force electronics guru from “some-little-town-in-Oklahoma-you-never-heard-of”. He is based in San Antonio now, but was based in Biloxi, MS. He is eager to get back on a motorcycle. He is back on active duty as he continues his rehab.
I listened to good natured Army versus Air Force versus Navy jabs all the way to Las Cruces. Neither the Marines nor the Coast Guard was mentioned at all. Thanks for little favors. Also, I have never had any passengers use the relief tube so many times. Must have had too much iced tea at La Fiesta?
I learned that a military wife give you no slack when you do not call home when you said you would even though you are out on a “black op” in Iraq. Communication from active areas are usually pretty good except when out on patrol.
I learned that the controversial “Surge” worked in Iraq. Oscar and Justin were there and saw the results as they worked in the neighborhoods with the Iraqi people. Many Iraqis have satellite dishes and watch shows like Jersey Shore and South Park… both certain to improve their opinions of the U.S.
I learned there are three good things about being an amputee:
The Army does not care about your weight anymore.
It is quicker to get a buzz from alcohol.
The VA will refit your motorcycle so you can ride it with a prosthesis.
On this hike through the desert it is a good idea to carry more than one leg. Oscar brought three.
All these men are on active duty and had to get permission to go on the Bataan Death March Memorial Hike in Las Cruces. They made this trip on their own time and took personal leave to do it. That’s right, they had to get permission to use their personal time to travel to the high desert in New Mexico, walk almost 30 miles in the heat and sand to honor their heroes from World War II.
They shared their concerns about being able to complete the hike on Sunday. It is not the physical challenge that worries them; it is their fear of failing to properly honor the men who were on the original Bataan Death March in 1942. Please read that sentence again.
They will do just fine.

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