December 8, 2015
Vietnam seems like another age; farther away in feeling than in years. Regardless of age or interest, there are still lessons to be learned. For example, through time there are few places where the caste system still exists. The American military is one of them; especially the U.S. Navy, where uniforms are exemplary of two centuries of tradition expressed through rank.
There is no mistaking the Navy's "flag rank" with Admirals awash in gold-braided finery in contrast to lower non-commissioned men and women often seen in dungarees and white hats. While behavior is professional, even cordial across the ranks, there is no doubt about the chain-of-command and vast differences between a high ranking officer and an enlisted person.
Charles Plumb was a Navy fighter pilot in Vietnam. On Plumb's 76th mission his F-4 Phantom was hit by a surface-to-air missile forcing him to hit the ejection button at 400 miles-per-hour over hostile territory. As he was catapulted from the cockpit, Commander Plumb's thoughts instantly went to a silent prayer hoping his parachute would open. In a micro-second, it did.
On landing in the midst of Communist Vietnamese encampments, the Commander was transferred to the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," all expenses paid. In return, like all American prisoners, Plumb was abused mentally and physically for six years, yet he survived.
After returning to the States and repatriation with his family, he was lunching with his wife, taking in the sights and sounds of freedom contrasting his hellish years in North Vietnam. Suddenly a man approached from a nearby table. "You're Commander Plumb ... you flew off the Kittyhawk ... and you were shot down," said the man. "How could you possibly know that?" asked the stunned Commander.
"Well, I packed your parachute" said the former sailor. "I guess it worked."
Standing in reverent gratitude, Plumb enthusiastically responded, "It certainly did! I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for you." Emotions flooded Plumb's mind like so many remembrances tumbling out of a long-sealed locker; the flyer contemplating his deliverance thanks to this nondescript enlisted hero who had simply done his job somewhere below the decks of the Kittyhawk. Day after day, hours on end, a sailor cared enough to do it right while sorting the shrouds and cords every time, so that someone he'd never know, never meet, might survive a dire situation.
And so it seems appropriate on any given day to look inside across the span of our existence, asking "who's packed our parachute?" For all our mentoring, our successes and the lessons of our occasional failures, were there people we failed to remember as we climbed in rank to the flight deck of our career?
Have we said thank you enough, returned compliments, or simply said "hello," even if it didn't seem important at the moment? There's ample time to remember who packed your parachute, and there's no better time than right now.