“In order to truly experience the light and the bright you have to see the darkness. I think if you shield yourself from the darkness, you’ll not appreciate and fully understand the beauty -- the beauty -- of life. I go back to the sacrifices I’ve seen guys make on the battlefield, and again, it’s in the complete darkness of the world, of the human soul, and you see that. There is nothing brighter than somebody that lays down their life for their friends. I think if you want to understand the beauty and the glory of the life you have, it is good to know and understand that darkness.” – Jocko Willink, U.S. Navy, Retired
On the morning of January 31, 1988, USS Coral Sea was fighting through uncharacteristically stormy seas in the central Mediterranean. The storm was a big one and the Ageless Warrior was closed up tight. White water was coming over the bow, lashing the jets and helos chained to the deck with heavy weather tie downs. The weather was so severe that flying had been curtailed, and the weather decks and sponsons were secured. It was far too dangerous for men to venture outside the confines of the ship.
A few minutes after a particularly severe wave-crashing shudder, “Medical Emergency” was called over the 1-MC. A man had been securing equipment on a sponson when a wave smashed across the exposed area. Tons of seawater had lifted a piece of ground support equipment and flung it across the sponson, crushing the man against an armored bulkhead. The medical response team dashed off. Reports began coming in, and they weren’t good.
“Can’t get an airway.”
As the stretcher bearers bustled into the treatment room with the injured sailor, the surgeon took one look and told me to scrub.
“You’ll have to rub his heart.”
I scrubbed and donned gloves.
With the casualty on the table the surgeon called for a knife, then slashed the chest open on the left side.
As I turned from donning my gloves I heard the ratcheting sound of the rib spreader opening, allowing access to the heart. I slid my hands into the sailor’s chest and clasped the heart between opposing palms. The heart should have been turgid with blood and beating, but it was flaccid and still.
“Heart’s flat,” I reported.
The surgeon glanced at me and mimed “heart compression” with his bloody hands, then quickly performed a stab thoracotomy on the right side of the chest. The internal pressure of hemorrhage in the chest was relieved, finally making it possible to get air in. The nurse anesthetist quickly placed an endotracheal tube and began squeezing the ambu bag.
As I compressed the heart, I could feel the left lung inflating. A good sign?
The ship was still shuddering and moving about. On the floor of the treatment room a pool of blood grew, supplied by the steady stream flowing out of the young man’s mangled torso.
The ship took a big, shuddering, three-dimensional roll, and with the deck slick with blood it was all the medical team could do to keep the injured man on the table. As the ship lurched the physics of complex motion caused the unresponsive man to roll to his left, toward me. My hands were buried deep in his chest, rhythmically squeezing his heart. As he rolled, a shattered rib bone stabbed into the flesh of my left forearm. In that situation it was less than a minor inconvenience. I continued massaging his heart.
The medical team started large bore IV’s, one in each arm, and began administering Ringer’s Lactate as fast as it would flow. The anesthetist injected a cocktail of medicines to make the heart beat and raise blood pressure.
Within my hands the sailor’s heart began to quiver in fibrillation. Another good sign?
The heart quivered, then began to beat erratically. This lasted about 30 seconds. The heartbeat slowed, then the heart began once again to fibrillate. As room-temperature Ringer’s Lactate replaced warm blood, I felt the sailor’s heart began to cool.
Then it stopped fibrillating.
The senior medical officer stuck his head into the treatment room.
“I’ve activated the walking blood bank,” he said. “How much will we need?”
The surgeon glanced at the casualty and quickly, silently polled the treatment team. He sighed.
“We won’t need any.”
David Wayne Cornell was born on Oct. 16, 1966, in Cairo, W.V. He would have been 52 this year, but he died aboard Coral Sea 30 years ago, a little more than eight months shy of age 22.
I didn’t know him. I’m sure I’d seen him around, and I’m pretty sure I’d seen him in sick call once, but I could be mistaken on that.
His family called him by his middle name, Wayne. His sister, Crystal, was just a little girl. She thought the world of her brother. January 31 was her birthday. While she was sleeping in West Virginia, perhaps dreaming in anticipation of a happy birthday celebration with cake and presents, I held Wayne’s heart in my hands as it became finally and forever still.
He is buried in the Cairo IOOF Cemetery.
Owing a debt
As this newspaper hits the newsstands, the Memorial Day weekend is beginning. The actual holiday will be observed on Monday. Memorial Day is a day set aside to honor those Americans who have fallen in military service to their country. To date, more than 1,196,541 have fallen during war time, and some tens of thousands during peacetime.
Each and every American – including every living veteran like myself – owes a debt to the fallen. What do we owe these men and women?
Firstly, we must recognize that the debt we owe is a debt which can only be settled in kind. Those men and women gave every single thing they had, and every single thing they could ever have, to their nation. Only those who also fall in service can fully retire the debt they owe.
We owe them that understanding.
Secondly, we need to clearly understand what they fell in service of. No American service member has ever fought for a king, or for the government, or for congress. No American serviceman has ever fought for their state or their town or their friends and neighbors or even for their family. A sincere desire to serve and protect many of these was certainly a major factor in every service member’s decision to serve. But those things are not what they served.
What all American service members have always formally and officially served are the principles and ideals that define our nation. American service members have always sworn an oath of service, and it has never been to our geographical or political nation. The oath has always been to something much larger than population and geography.
As I’ve written here previously, each service member throughout our nation’s history has sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, which enumerates and codifies the principles and ideas upon which our nation is formed. The Constitution is what they serve, and the Constitution is what our military dead fell in service of.
We owe them that understanding.
We also owe the fallen this. We must do our best to practice the First Principle of our Nation in all of our affairs. We must embrace and practice the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with unalienable natural rights. We must understand that the fallen were men and women just like us, not better human beings, not worse human beings, but equal to us as we are equal to them. Only in this way can we begin to gain an understanding of the magnitude of their sacrifice.
We must understand that the sacrifice of the fallen is part of the price paid to give each of us title, free and clear, to the blessings of Liberty. We must understand that this gift is above any mortal gift bestowed by any tribe or government throughout the long history of mankind. We must understand that the government of the United States does not give us this gift; that the government is formally constrained from interfering with or usurping our unalienable natural rights. We must understand that none of us have a special deal, nor do any of us deserve anything above and beyond the blessing we already own.
Finally, we must live our lives. We must embrace the joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, of the lives we have. We must do this because the fallen cannot, because they sacrificed every single thing they had to preserve and protect and support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.
These things we owe the fallen.