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Wren: In Praise Of Sergeants

05/24/12 7:55AM By Chris Wren
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(Host) Chris Wren is a former editor and reporter at The New York Times. But this Memorial Day, he will be thinking about military service and unsung heroes.

(Wren) Let us not praise famous men on this Memorial Day. Not the politicians. Not the generals who auction off their memoirs.

Let us praise instead the sergeants, who have held our armies together through America's wars. And suffer for their patriotism with too many deployments that estrange them from their families. And too often, a scandalous neglect, if they return home broken in body and mind.

I never earned sergeant's stripes. I wore the gold bars of a very green second lieutenant. And when I wound up in Korea as a rifle platoon leader, the sergeants taught me everything I had to know.

After my year in Korea, I volunteered for Army Special Forces. And that took me to jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia, where two sergeants, Norberry and Bernhart, teamed up to make my life Hell, for the next few weeks. They ran us on the double everywhere. They made us jump for hours through doors, and off towers thirty four feet high. They swung us high on harnesses, and dropped us. Over and over. They could be mean as snakes, goading us with a sarcasm that was hilarious, if you weren't the butt of their joke. I learned that while doing push-ups on our rest breaks.

"Well, well, curly-locks, what have we here?" Norberry professed shock at the blond fuzz on the scalp of the kid next to me - who forgot to get a haircut. "How can you jump out of a plane with all that hair blowing in your face?"

At last, we loaded onto a real plane for our first live parachute jump. We'd rehearsed the jump commands so many times. Stand up. Hook up. Check your static line. Check your equipment. Sound off for equipment check.

I shuffled forward, and looked down twelve hundred feet to our drop zone - a tiny patch of sand. No way could I do this. I was an English major in college!

Well, there are worse things than dying. Like explaining to Sergeants Norberry and Bernhart why you'd changed your mind. "Stand in the door!" Sergeant Bernhart bellowed over the deafening engine-roar. "Go!"

Before I could think, I bounded from an aircraft flying a hundred twenty five miles an hour. I fell five or six seconds before the parachute deployed. And the opening shock nearly tore me apart. I slammed into the ground as it rushed up to meet me.

Sergeants Norberry and Bernhart shook their heads in mock despair. We had to jump four more times, now tripping over rifles and heavy packs, before the silver wings of a paratrooper were pinned on our chests.

Everyone's scared, a sergeant in my Special Forces group told me later. The courage comes from doing it anyway. And any sergeant knows that.

Thank you, Sergeant Norberry. And God bless you, Sergeant Bernhart!
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