My Death Defying Life as a Soldier
R. Douglas Iliff

Lt. Gen. Hank Emerson took command of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg in July of 1975. I arrived the same month, a newly minted M.D. from Kansas. He was once, in Korea, the boss of a guy named Colin Powell, who later became Secretary of State. I was, at that time, about to embark on the journey of becoming the boss of four children.

Lt. Gen. Emerson was a character in the mold of Patton and MacArthur. His commands in Korea and Vietnam were marked with creativity and success. His helicopter crashed in the Mekong Delta, and he was severely burned. He carried a pearl-handled six-shooter strapped to his hip, in lieu of the regulation automatic. He liked his troops to train nights and sleep days.

I liked to sleep nights and work days, but my family medicine residency at a short-staffed and very busy military base hospital immediately cured me of that. During my shifts in the emergency room, I learned about “triage by attrition.” I was the only doctor, and I would see patients nonstop until the less-ill finally drifted away to recover at home. Then I would catch a couple of hours of fitful sleep, shower and go back to work in the clinic.

By regulation, my medical comrades and I were supposed to get a couple of weeks of basic military training. No time for that, as it turned out. We were basically civilians with a uniform. And then, Lt. Gen. Emerson discovered that we had been allowed to shirk our martial duties.

Backspace: why did I choose a training program at the most gung-ho base in the country, when I could have gone to Hawaii, coastal Washington, or Monterey Bay? My brother, Steve, was serving there in the 5th Special Forces Group.

Once “Gunfighter” Emerson discovered the training omission, he suggested that the defects could be corrected by physicians accompanying real soldiers on training missions. Fool that I was, and deprived of sleep by a newborn son and every third night on call, I offered to join my brother’s A-team on an insertion into Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle.

That nearly cost me my life. His, too, through no fault of my own.

Thus it was that I found myself on a C-135 “Blackbird” flying the hump from North Carolina to Florida at night. Steve was not with me. His team was doing a HALO jump into Eglin. My transportation was on a different mission, involving a low altitude static-line jump. I was just along for the ride to the airport. Or base. Whatever.

To one unaccustomed to military flying, this counted as an adventure. It was noisy. I had been issued jungle fatigues and a beret. It was dark, and these guys were jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.

As I followed them down the line, I gradually got a better look at the process. Red light, green light, push from the jumpmaster, repeat. Unfortunately, my best look came after the last guy with a parachute was launched out the door.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. Fortunately, the jumpmaster realized that this idiot lacked the requisite apparel to land alive. I could see that he was trying to share some advice with me, but I couldn’t hear him over the roar of the engines. I slunk back to a seat in the safe center of the plane, my tail firmly between my legs, until we made a safe landing.

I did get the opportunity to atone for my stupidity later. I was attached to three guys with a jeep — playing the part of guerrillas — who were assigned to meet my brother’s team on the ground. I encountered confusion. They could hear the plane pass overhead in the night sky, but no parachutes appeared. After some minutes a flare was spotted, and we were hot on the trail. Another flare was spotted, still a long ways off. More confusion. I had my map and my compass, and I understood triangulation. I plotted the location of the flares and persuaded the spotters that they were headed to the wrong location. We almost got there too late.

The Air Force navigator, a deskbound lieutenant colonel doing his periodic obligatory time aloft, had dropped them six miles from the planned landing zone — into a swamp. They had not been issued flotation gear. The lieutenant colonel was later forced into retirement for that blunder.

The command sergeant major of Steve’s team had landed in water. We found him on his tiptoes, arms trapped behind him by his soggy pack. His mouth was just above the surface as he repeatedly called for help.

Steve landed in the trees. Everyone survived, but they lost a number of M-16s in the drink, necessitating a time-wasting and futile search. I learned how to sleep in a hammock listening to the barking of alligators. I also learned how to interpret a war story from Vietnam told entirely through varying inflections of the F-word.

Did I become a more competent soldier? Not that I could ever tell.