BRAVO! supporter and enthusiast Brian Carn from Providence, Rhode Island, has spent years remembering something one of his non-commissioned officers did that probably saved Brian’s life back in 1975. As veterans of foreign wars and former members of the military will often tell you, they recall the acts that saved them, but don’t often get the chance to thank those who performed the acts. In today’s’ guest blog, Brian Cairn thanks one of his former NCOs, Sergeant Culliver.
August 19, 2013
Dear Sergeant Culliver,
So, it’s taken roughly 38 years for the words in this letter to get said and to thank you for something you did at that time, and may well have long ago forgotten. Your actions on a soggy Korean field in saving some stumbling-around, dumb little private never earned its rightful recognition but that doesn’t in any way diminish the selfless act of bravery you performed that day.
Through that long and twisting road called life, I’ve become an inner city high school math teacher in Providence for the past 18 years. This past school year, a lot of my 9th graders were in our school’s JROTC program and they would always pummel me with questions when it leaked out that I had been in the Army years earlier. When asked about any close calls I had experienced, I told the story I will retell for you shortly, and how I never thanked the person who saved me, and how I always wanted to. With the students’ enthusiastic encouragement and before it’s too late, I’m writing to say “thank-you.”
I guess I should refresh your memory as to the events in question. I seem to remember it was somewhere around early to mid-summer in 1975 and 2nd Platoon had been assigned range control duties for an infantry unit on a live fire exercise with the old shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket of the time period, the M-72 LAW. We were on some wet range in a small valley, surrounded by hills on three sides. Old tank hulks were on the hills which we used as our targets. Six firing stations were set up, the idea being to have six soldiers at a time—after instruction on the M-72—fire their LAW and then exit the area before another six came online. I was assigned to work the first firing station. After we were instructed on the LAW ourselves, and had fired enough of them to be comfortable in the supervision of others, the exercise began. Besides making sure the soldier at my station was operating the weapon properly, I was told two things: keep track of the number of duds (so we knew how many to find and blow up later) and if you had a hang-fire, take it away from the soldier before they panicked, then start walking away from everyone with it.
Roughly half way through, an infantry soldier at my station had what turned out to be the only hang-fire of the day. I actually did what I was told (for a change!), took the tube from him and began walking away from everyone with it as instructed. While I was walking and gently carrying the hang-fire, I couldn’t help but notice the whooshing sound emanating from the device and that the sound was slowing down. When we had received our instructions on the LAW and what to do in the event of a hang-fire, this noise was not mentioned so I was getting pretty scared about what was going to happen when the noise stopped (and I had no fantasies about just getting a scorched face like Wiley E. Coyote on some Roadrunner cartoon if the damned thing blew up). I was agonizing over continuing as instructed or hurling the M-72 away from myself as far as possible and diving to the ground as my best survival option (a move I found out years later which would have had catastrophic results).
With my brain on overload from the impending decision point of what to do, my next recollection is having you right next to me on my left, calmly giving me the technical details that I was hearing the arming propeller spin down on the anti-tank rocket stuck inside the tube, and that when it stopped, if I dropped it, tripped with it, or even jostled it in any way, the projectile stuck inside would explode killing us both. Staying with me the whole time, you had me continue to carry the hang-fire a-ways further before gently setting it on the ground. At that point, you had me run to a safe location, you set an explosive charge next to the M-72 and ran to the same spot, and the resultant explosion destroyed the unexploded LAW projectile. I’d like to think that, given similar circumstances, I too could respond with the same level of courage and concern you did that day to save someone else. As disappointing to me that it’s taken this long for me to thank you, is the fact that you received no recognition of any kind for, I believe, saving my life by preventing me from doing something fatal through inexperience. The new lieutenant 2nd Platoon had just received was probably too green to realize what he had just witnessed and that he should have put you in for at least a Commendation Medal if not a Soldier’s Medal.
Time marches on and now I find myself teaching inner city youth, usually vulnerable 9th graders who are in intervention math classes. If I caused pain to some of you old sergeants like our Squad Leader Staff Sergeant Jones or our Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First Class Cooper, believe me I’ve paid penance many times over teaching in what is a very difficult environment. I know full well what it’s like to feel extremely frustrated yet to still love the charges in front of you who are the cause of your temporary angst. I’ve had many successes over the years, including a student, now a major, who went to West Point from what was then the worst school in Rhode Island. A lot of what has made me successful as a teacher was modeled by sergeants like yourself and the others; it just took a while for those lessons to be recognized and learned. So, my successes as a teacher have also been yours and theirs. By direct extension, every student I’ve been able to make a positive impact on thanks you for probably saving me from having been turned into so many scraps of bloody clothing so long ago. And I, of course, thank you again as well.
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