Ken’s Take on the World

Memorial Day 2016

On this Memorial Day, Americans gather together for barbeques and get-together’s with friends and family.  For many, it means a shorter work-week which is always nice.  For many families and friends this is a special day in which we come together to honor a loved one who paid the ultimate price in service to our nation.  Across the country, parades are held and wreaths are presented.  Graveyards in every state serve as the final resting place for those who gave their lives in combat zones across the globe in every war the United States has been involved in throughout history.


This is a tribute to a special group of military personnel.  For more than two centuries, one group of military members fought and died for their nation while hiding a very deep secret.  Gay and lesbian service members have fought, and died, in nearly every single conflict since the founding of our nation.  Because of the oppression and hostility they would face, including imprisonment, harassment, threats, and violence, these men and women, no less brave than their peers, were forced to live secret double lives.  Brave fighting men and women while in uniform and extremely discreet, closeted gay people in public.  To do otherwise put them at risk of discovery and other negative consequences.  Those brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice are known only to their family and friends.  Until now.


While the majority of lesbian and gay service members who were killed in battle throughout our history are unknown, the lifting of the military ban on openly gay service members has allowed the stories of contemporary service members to become public.  More importantly, marriage equality has permitted gay husbands and lesbian wives to collect pension and other benefits when their life mate is killed on the battlefield.


US Army Major Alan Rogers (09/21/1967 to 01/27/2008) was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) while on a patrol in January of 2008 in Afghanistan.  He was the first known combat fatality know to be gay.  In 2005, his Master’s thesis discussed the failure of the military policy of, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT).  His family states that they were unaware of his sexual orientation before he was killed.  Statisticians have estimated that at least 200 combat fatalities in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of operation were lesbian or gay.


Corporal Andrew Charles Wilfahrt is the first known gay service member killed in combat since the repeal of DADT.  He came out to his parents at 16 and at age 29 decided to join the Army.  He was 31 years old when he was killed by an IED on February 27, 2011.  He played piano and had scored a perfect score on an Army aptitude test.


US Air Force Major Adrianna M. Vorderbruggen was married to her wife in 2013.  One of the first lesbian Air Force members to marry in uniform.  She was 31 when she, along with five other Air Force intelligence members, on December 21, 2015 by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.  She is believed to be the first openly gay woman killed in combat.

Surely, there are many more stories of gay and lesbian service members who have lost their lives in service to their nation on battlefields around the world.  Not to mention the number of gay men and women who have been wounded in battle including the first US casualty of the Iraq war, Staff Sergeant Eric Alva.  This Memorial Day, as we remember all of those who died fighting for the United States, let us honor those, too, who fought a second battle in silence and secrecy against the very nation they served.


Memorial Day 2012

This Monday, American’s will celebrate Memorial Day with parades and barbecues and picnics with family and friends.  At 3:00 in the afternoon, the nation will pause for a moment to remember the men and women who have given their lives in the service of our country.  Memorial Day was first celebrated in 1868 to honor the fallen Union soldiers of the US Civil War.  Over the years, Memorial Day has been a time to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice paid by servicemen and women of all conflicts that our nation has become involved.

This Memorial Day, as I have for every Memorial Day since 1987, I will reflect on the lives of nine particular US Marines.  All were members of the Second Marine Division attached with Marine Amphibious Unit aboard the USS Saipan (LHA-2) during Operation Northern Wedding during August 1986.  To this day, I cannot recall their names.  They were young men called to volunteer and become one of the few, the brave ones we call United States Marines.  Two of them were pilots of a CH-46 helicopter.  The rest were just young guys around my age who had, perhaps, visions of bravery and valor and glory.  They had their entire lives to look forward to.  Or so, as we all did, they thought.

Tragedy often strikes without warning.  It cuts down the strongest and the smartest.  It takes the weakest and the bravest.  Over the course of a single week in late August, 1986, tragedy took the lives of nine brave young men.  Their lives intersected with my own as I was a young Navy Hospitalcorpsman stationed aboard the Saipan at that moment in history.  The first tragedy involved a helicopter crash.  It happened early one evening while I was in a class in a room several decks below the flight deck.  During the lecture klaxons sounded alerting us to a fire on the flight deck.  We thought this might be simply a drill, one of many in which all of us routinely train for in order to work as a team.  More alarms sounded announcing there was a man overboard.  We could each feel the ship heel as the giant engines began to backdown and turn.  Without a word, class was dismissed and we began to hurry to our duty stations.  As I ran up five decks through Main Medical, I asked another HM who was the SAR (search and rescue) corpsman.   When he told me, I knew that he was a junior guy and would need support.  I told the HM to pass on that I was taking the lifeboat and to hold the SAR duty corpsman at his duty station.

We dropped the SAR boat into the North Atlantic area of the Arctic Circle off the coast of Norway.  Five of us, uncertain but speculating as to what we might find.  We had been informed that it was a two-person spotter plane and then it was a chopper returning to our ship after ferrying Marines to one of the other ships.  The bridge directed us to a search point and there we saw two men standing on the wreckage of a shattered aircraft.  We thought it was, in fact, a spotter plane.  As we drew near, we saw an inflatable life raft with several men in it.  As we rounded the wreckage, we could see this was the bottom of a helicopter that the two men were standing on.  We could also see that a few of the men in the life raft were struggling to hold a third Marine up but they were unable to get him into the raft.

The sailor who was acting as our bow hook and safety swimmer, Troy Durbin, and I along with the engineer lay down on the bow of our boat and heaved the waterlogged Marine onto our deck.  I immediately began to assess him and discovered he was not breathing.  I opened his airway and inserted an oropharyngeal airway, preparing to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while the bow hook and engineer were bringing the second man aboard.  My Marine started to gag and cough and I pulled the airway out so he could vomit and clear his lungs out.  I briefly turned my attention to the second Marine, also unconscious and not breathing.  I opened his airway, retrieved the OP tube and inserted it again prepared to perform artificial respirations.  Like the first Marine, he again began to cough and gag and I pulled the tube out and rolled him onto his side.  I glanced over at the first man and he had again stopped breathing, so I repeated the process I had first used with him with the same result.  After turning him to his side, I noticed the second Marine had, too, stopped breathing.  I again opened his airway and he gasped for air and began to weakly cough.  Meanwhile, the first man had stopped breathing.  The bow hook was helping the remaining men in the life raft onto the boat and the engineer had to go help the Boat Officer bring a couple of people floating of the stern of the boat.

I turned my attention to the first Marine who also had a facial laceration but no other significant, obvious, injuries.  When I was able to return to the second Marine, I was not able to revive him and returned my focus to the first Marine who remained unstable.  I had Troy stay with the first Marine and went to assess the remaining Marines as we headed back to the ship.  After assessing the Marines, I had the Boat Officer call in a triage report to let our medical team know what to expect.  Transfer of the injured from our 36’ boat to the Saipan was challenging as we were bobbing around in six to ten foot swells that wanted to smash us into the ship.  The Boatswain’s Mate who was our pilot and the engineer kept us as steady as possible.  We received information that the chopper carried 21 men and six Marines were still unaccounted for.  After off-loading, we conducted a full Search and Rescue for several more hours before securing the wreckage of the helicopter and towing it back to the ship.  In a single moment, the lives of eight US Marines were lost.  Six of them were never recovered, claimed by the ocean depths.

About a week later, a call came in that they were flying in by helicopter a critically injured Marine, injured after being struck and run over by one of the Marine vehicles while conducting mock beach assault operations.  Another corpsman and I set up the trauma room while the ship’s Doctor and surgeon along with a Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) went to the flight deck to meet the arriving casualty.  They set him on the deck for a very brief assessment before rushing him into the trauma room.  We hoisted him onto the operating table and began to cut him out of his clothes.  The anesthesiologist was attempting to establish an airway and as I attempted to suction out his mouth the anesthesiologist discovered what may have been the fatal injury, a massive scalp laceration and skull fracture.  We pronounced the young man, cleaned and dressed his wounds and prepared his body, as we had already prepared two others, for transfer back to the waiting families who had received that dreaded visit from uniformed officers coming to express the thanks of a grateful nation and their condolences.

Over the next several weeks there would be a few more servicemembers whose lives were lost, including two Navy pilots when their aircraft suffered a catastrophic failure in our area of operations.  These young men I mentioned earlier, are the last servicemen who died aboard the Saipan before I was discharged in 1987.  Perhaps it was my relative youth, I was only 19 at the time, but the deaths of these fine young men had an important impact on me and in the person that I have attempted to be.  To make sure that my technical skills are always sharp, so that when called on, I can serve others as well as our team tried to serve those nine Marines in 1986.

This year, however, marks a special significance to me.  This Memorial Day will be the first time in the history of our country that we may openly, and proudly, pay our respects to gay and lesbian service members who have served with honor and distinction in each of our nation’s wars and in peacetime and who, also, paid the ultimate sacrifice for a people who, for far too long, would treat us as second class citizens.  Because my discharge was based on the fact that I am gay, this is especially important to me as I, along with many others advocated for repeal of the ban on gay servicemen and women and spoke out against the enactment of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  We pushed for the repeal of this nonsensical legislation from the moment it was signed into law and we applauded the support for repeal from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Admiral Mike Mullin, and President of the United States, Barack Obama.

I am thankful for all of the brave men and women who have donned a uniform and stood watch over our freedoms and ideals and responded ferociously to any attack on these principles which make our nation so great!  Your dedication and service will never be forgotten.