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Column: Make Time for Sergeants, It’s Their Courage and Smarts That Make Our Military Strong

  • U.S. Army soldiers wear boots as they march in formation during a change of command ceremony, Monday, April 3, 2017, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. Lt. Gen. Gary Volesky assumed command of First Corps from Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, who has commanded the organization for more than three years. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)



For the Valley News
Saturday, November 10, 2018

Let us not praise famous men on this Veterans Day. Not the chicken-hawk politicians who never served themselves. Not the generals who adorn their uniforms with fruit-salad ribbons.

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 wasn’t clever enough to earn sergeant’s stripes. I wore the gold bars of a green second lieutenant from ROTC, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. And when I wound up in Korea as a rifle platoon leader, my sergeants taught me everything I needed to know.

On my first live night patrol through the wire and into the muck and snow below the DMZ, my Sergeant Velez reached out to pocket the clip of bullets from my carbine. “Sir,” he whispered, “when you need it, I’ll give it to you.”

After my 13-month deployment in Korea, I volunteered for the Army Special Forces, which took me to jump school at Georgia’s Fort Benning, where two instructors, 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 several stories 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 jokes. I learned that while doing push-ups during our rest breaks.

“Well, well, curly-locks, what have we here?” Sergeant Norberry feigned shock at the blond fuzz on 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.”

My snicker brought me 20 more pushups.

At last, we squeezed onto a real airplane for our first live parachute drop. We had rehearsed the jump commands over and over.

“Stand up ... Hook up ... Check your static lines ... Check your equipment ... Sound off for equipment check ... Stand in the door!”

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 at Dartmouth.

Well, there are worse things than dying, like explaining to Sergeants Norberry and Bernhart why you had changed your mind.

“Go!” Sergeant Bernhart bellowed over the deafening engine-roar. The red light over the door flashed green.

Before I could think, I had bounded from an aircraft flying 125 miles an hour.

I plummeted 90 feet before the parachute deployed. The opening shock nearly tore me apart. I slammed into the ground as it rushed up to meet me.

Sergeants Bernhart and Norberry only shook their heads in mock despair.

We had to jump four more times, tripping over our rifles and heavy packs, before the silver wings of a paratrooper were pinned on our chests.

Everyone gets scared, a sergeant in my Seventh Special Forces Group confided. The courage comes from doing it anyway. As any sergeant knows.

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

Christopher Wren, of Thetford, is a former New York Times foreign correspondent and bureau chief and the author most recently of Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom: Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys and the American Revolution.