Justplainbill's Weblog

December 1, 2014

An American Tale [nc]

Joseph R. John
Nov 27 at 3:35 PM

One of the many things we, as Americans, should be thankful for: The below listed article is from a retired Marine Corps Colonel, USNA ’61. it is a little long but I assure you it is worth the read. It’s about a surgeon who after his US Marine Corps Office son was Killed in Action, and his second son joined the US Marine Corps to follow in his brother’s footsteps, put his very successful surgery practice on hold at age 62.

With the help of President Bush, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, USMC, USNA ’67 became a Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander (Surgeon) and served with the US Marine Corps in combat in Iraq and in Afghanistan as the Battalion Surgeon; he saved hundreds of double and triple amputee US Marine Corps heroes.

You no doubt will want to forward this story to those in your address book who will also be thankful for such an incredible Naval Medical Officer, especially if you are a Medical Officer in the US Armed Forces. If anyone knows how to reach “Doctor Krissoff”, who lives in Ranch Santa Fe, the Combat Veterans For Congress would like to meet him and provide him with special recognition.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Joseph R. John, USNA ‘62

Capt USN(Ret)

Chairman, Combat Veterans For Congress PAC

2307 Fenton Parkway, Suite 107-184

San Diego, CA 92108

Fax: (619) 220-0109

Cell: (310) 989-8778


Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
-Isaiah 6:8

From: Don Myers ‘61
Sent: Wednesday, November 26, 2014 6:59 PM
To: Joseph R. john
Subject: In His Son’s Steps

Our country is full of people like this and that is why I remain optimistic about our future.


If you have doubts about the patriotism and dedication of our young people and others, this article will help in restoring faith in them!

In His Son’s Steps

Excerpted from For Love of Country by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Copyright © 2014 by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
As soon as Bill Krissoff glanced out the front window during breakfast to see who had rung his doorbell at eight on a Saturday morning, he knew. Three Marines, ramrod straight in their dress blues, stood next to an Army chaplain.

Nate, Krissoff’s elder son, twenty-five years old, had deployed to Iraq with an elite reconnaissance battalion as a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps.

“We regret to inform you,” one of the Marines began saying once Krissoff opened the door. He doesn’t remember the rest. His head spinning, his body seized with shock, he stumbled through the house to wake up Christine, his wife. Soon they were sitting together on a living room sofa as the Marines explained, with grim solemnity, what had occurred a half day earlier half a world away from their home in Reno, Nevada.

Nathan M. Krissoff, a counterintelligence specialist, had been returning to his base from a village near Fallujah when his Humvee drove over a bomb buried in a dry riverbed. The brunt of the blast hit the vehicle’s right side. Nate had been in the right rear seat.

The Marines sat stoically, awaiting the next question Bill or Christine would ask.

The Krissoffs wanted to call their other son, Austin, at the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia.

Less than three years younger than Nate, he was following his brother’s trail from an elite prep school in Pebble Beach, California, to a small New England liberal arts college, and then into military service.

The Krissoffs aren’t one of those families in which every male for the last four generations has worn a uniform. Bill, who came of age during the Vietnam War, wasn’t drafted and didn’t volunteer. Nate hadn’t been on the military track. In high school, he wrote poetry, played in the school symphony, and enjoyed wild-water kayaking. At Williams College in Massachusetts, which doesn’t have an Army or Marine ROTC program, he captained the swim team and majored in political science.

Then came September 11, 2001. He was a junior. The father of his best friend on the swim team, a New York banker, did nothing for six weeks but go to funerals. Nate’s carefree ways began to turn more serious. A year after he graduated, he applied for a job with the CIA. At his interview, the recruiter was impressed with Nate’s education and aptitude but urged him to get some seasoning before pursuing such a career. Crestfallen, Nate contacted a friend from Williams who had become a Marine intelligence officer. If he wanted seasoning, his friend said, the Marines would give it to him.

In June 2004, as the Iraq war was becoming ever more perilous for American troops, Nate told his father that he wanted to become a Marine officer. Bill was more than a little apprehensive.

“Do you fully understand what this means?” he asked his son. “Do you understand the risk?”
Nate said he did.

Three months later, Nate was marching across the parade field at Quantico, a newly commissioned second lieutenant. Bill and Christine sat in the bleachers, as proud as the other parents, but understandably anxious. This is the real deal, Bill thought to himself as he watched his lanky son in the distance, standing at attention, his thick, dark hair shorn into a Marine-regulation high-and-tight buzz cut under his cap.

But before Nate could be called into a battle zone, there would be Basic School, where he was taught the art and science of leading Marines. Then intelligence school. Then an assignment on Okinawa. It was there that he talked his way into an Iraq deployment with the Third Reconnaissance Battalion.

As he headed to Iraq in September 2006, he sent an e-mail to his parents and Austin, who had graduated from college and was preparing to enter Marine officer school.

Almost five years to the day after September 11, 2001, I have the chance to put my money where my mouth is in terms of service … I’m constantly reminded of that famous quote from Tom Hanks’ character at the end of Saving Private Ryan: “Earn this.” Earning it will mean sacrifice, determination, doing my job to the best of my ability. I chose this, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The complexities of the conflict and the shifting perceptions of the world are all but totally irrelevant to the fact that we fight for the men at our side; my success will be gauged by the responsibility to safeguard Marines and accomplish the mission, not by any other metric. I’m lucky to be deploying with such a phenomenal, savvy group of guys.

Several weeks later, Nate wrote to Austin, who had started school at Quantico, with a description of an attack that killed Sergeant Jonathan J. Simpson, a much-admired member of the recon battalion.

Why do I tell you this? Because Sgt. Simpson and many all-Americans like him are the ones you will be entrusted to lead, protect and stand in front of. Never forget that all the trials and training you and the other candidates (eventually Second Lieutenants) go through is not about you. America’s sons and daughters will be entrusted to your care. You owe them competence, discipline, courage, judgment, etc. Post Sgt. Simpson’s memorial picture, perhaps up on your squad bay read-board, tell your fire team and squad and platoon about him — as a clear reminder of what this is all about. Keep it with you through the trials ahead. Because when you hear the final roll call, the long bugle playing taps, and the bagpipes wailing — we better have done everything short of the hand of God Himself to accomplish the mission and bring Marines home. It is a sacrifice he and many like him have made fighting for each other. Earn it.

When Nate became the 2,924th American service member killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom on December 9, 2006, Austin was almost finished with officer school. He wanted to stay with his training platoon, “the only people,” he thought, “who understood what happened.” But the staff at Quantico put him on a flight to Reno.

His mother hoped he would reconsider his decision to be a Marine — the service offered him the choice of walking away because he was his parents’ only surviving child — but he would not change his mind. Nate “would have wanted nothing more than for me to carry on the mission,” he said. But to partly assuage his mother’s concerns, he decided that instead of going into the infantry as he had planned, he would specialize in intelligence, as his brother had, though in a noncombat role. A week after he arrived in Reno, he was commissioned as an officer in a low-key swearing-in at his parents’ house.

On the Saturday before Christmas, the Krissoffs held a memorial service for Nate in Reno. White-gloved Marines hoisted a flag-draped coffin containing an urn with Nate’s cremated ashes. The national anthem was played. A teacher at Nate’s high school recalled his warmth, his love of literature, and his mischievous side. “As a young man Nate was, indeed, Dickens’ Pip, Salinger’s Holden, and Twain’s Huck. But he was also Ferris Mueller.” A friend from Williams described him as “goofy, hilarious, and charismatic on the outside but disciplined, insightful, and focused on the inside.” Captain Michael Dubrule, who had led Nate through intelligence training, told the mourners that Nate skillfully collected information to help save the lives of American troops and innocent Iraqis. “I want you all to know that Nate died doing what he loved, leading men in combat, saving lives, and making a difference in the lives of so many,” Dubrule said. “No greater epitaph can be written, no greater sacrifice can be made.”

After a few weeks, Bill threw himself back into his work as an orthopedic surgeon. Chris joined him in the office, where she ran the business side of his solo practice. He returned to the operating theater. Grief welled inside him, but his skill as a physician was undiminished. Soon, however, treating busted shoulders and bum knees — as he had for twenty-eight years — began to feel unfulfilling. One day that spring, a patient came in complaining of minor knee pain, the sort of ache that would go away with some rest or a varied workout routine.

Why, Bill thought, am I spending my time hearing people complain about nothing?

A few months later, Nate’s battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Seely, traveling the country to visit the parents of his fallen Marines, came to see the Krissoff family. Bill and Austin took him for a hike around Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay, and Bill asked Seely about medical care for Marines in Iraq. Seely told him that every Marine battalion deploys with a surgeon and numerous medics, all from the Navy. As Seely described the role of the battalion surgeon, the penny dropped for Bill.

That’s what I want to do, he thought. I want to be a battalion surgeon.

Bill was as lean as his boys. He stayed fit by biking, hiking, kayaking, and skiing. He figured he could meet the military’s physical requirements, so he called up a Navy recruiter in San Francisco and offered up his services. The recruiter posed a series of questions. Finally, he asked how old Bill was.

“Sixty,” Bill said.

“Um, that’s a problem,” the recruiter replied. “You’re too old.” Anyone over forty-two who wants to join the Navy Reserve medical corps needs an age waiver, the recruiter explained. He wasn’t optimistic about the possibility of a sixty-year-old obtaining one.

Undeterred, Krissoff called an Air Force recruiter. He got a similar answer. So he went back to treating sore knees.

That August, he and Christine received a voice-mail message from a White House aide inviting them to meet with President George W. Bush after he spoke to an American Legion convention in Reno the following week. They attended the speech with Austin, standing in the back and laughing at the president’s self-deprecating humor. As the president was concluding his remarks, they were ushered into a small room with several other families. All of them were “gold star” parents and siblings, those who had lost sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Bush strode in a few minutes later and shook everyone’s hand. He spoke at length about the war, explaining his strategy and lauding the sacrifice of his audience’s fallen relatives. The Krissoffs listened intently. Iraq was being torn apart by a civil war. U.S. troops were getting attacked daily. Hundreds of Americans had come back in caskets since Nate’s final journey home. The war had become deeply unpopular: fewer than four in ten Americans still believed it was worth fighting. When Bush asked for questions or comments, Bill spoke up. He knew what had driven Nate to join the Marines, to find his way to Iraq. He didn’t want his son to have died in vain.

“Let’s stay the course,” he told the president.

Bush approached each family individually and asked if there was anything he could do to help them. Several made small requests for assistance in dealing with death-benefits paperwork. An aide dutifully jotted notes.

Then Bush walked over to the Krissoffs and posed the same question.

“Yes, sir. There is one thing,” Bill said. “I want to join the Navy medical corps and serve, but they told me I was too old. No disrespect, but I’m younger than you are.”

Bush’s eyes widened. He looked at Christine.

“What does Mom think?”

Christine said she and Bill had talked about his desire to serve.

She wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of his traveling to a war zone, but she wouldn’t stand in the way if going might help her husband heal. “I’m on board with it,” she said.

Bush turned to Austin, who had driven up from Camp Pendleton to accompany his parents to the meeting. He was skeptical, but he, too, didn’t want to sabotage his father’s quest. “He’ll be pretty good out there,” he told the president.

Bush said he would be meeting with General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in two days and would mention Krissoff’s request. He summoned Karl Rove, one of his top aides, to collect the necessary information from Bill.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Bush said.

Three days after meeting Bush, Krissoff received a phone call from the same Navy recruiter who had scoffed at his request to join a few months earlier. “I have orders to meet with you by the end of the day,” the recruiter said. When Krissoff replied that he was trailering a horse with his wife and could not immediately drive down to San Francisco — three hours away by car — the recruiter was undeterred. “I’m coming up to see you,” he said.

Krissoff took the recruiter to dinner, filled out a stack of paperwork — and waited. A month later, he got word that he had been accepted into the Navy Reserve for his dream assignment: a Marine Corps medical battalion.

Although he was required to train once a month, Krissoff treated his reserve duties as a full-time job. For him, joining the military wasn’t about wearing a uniform and attending to Marines on the home front. He wanted to go to Iraq, as Nate had done and Austin would be doing soon. And that meant spending as much time as possible learning how to be a combat physician. He had decades of medical experience, but none of that involved treating blast wounds.

He and his wife moved to the San Diego area in early 2008 so he could be closer to the Navy hospital on the Marine Corps air base in Miramar, where he signed up for every combat-medicine course he could take. He traveled to Morocco that summer to participate in a military exercise during which he practiced working in a field hospital. He attended advanced workshops at an Army hospital in Texas, and he joined Marines on heart-thumping hikes through the rocky Southern California hills to prove to superiors a generation younger that he could withstand the rigors of deployment.

When his training felt grueling, he thought back to a letter Nate had written while he was at officer school:

0 dark 30. 4:30 a.m. Then it began. Platoon staff formally introduced us and then took charge. Imagine tables flipping, chairs getting thrown against walls, instructors screaming. A volume that shocks the body. PT has been harder than any work I’ve done in my life … Pain is constant here. Honor, sacrifice, integrity aren’t just fairytale phrases. They’re earned every day in sweat, tears, blood, etc., by these people. The values of the USMC are one of a kind. Keep shit straight … The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.

Austin, who was stationed at Pendleton at the time, came by to watch his father put on his uniform. “He’d shake his head and redo everything,” Bill said with a chuckle.


Bill Krissoff and his son Nate.

Eighteen months after meeting President Bush, in February 2009, Bill Krissoff arrived in Iraq — as a lieutenant commander in the Navy — to spend seven months treating orthopedic injuries at a field hospital on the sprawling al-Taqaddum Air Base near Fallujah, less than ten miles from where Nate had been killed.

For Bill, the decision to go to war at sixty-two had nothing to do with seeking closure after his son’s death. The term itself provoked him. “‘Closure’ is for somebody else,” he said. “That’s not for people who have lost sons and daughters. Your life has changed. Forever changed … You don’t just have closure and move on with your life.”

Shuttering his lucrative medical practice, joining the Navy, and deploying to the western Iraqi desert was about “turning that loss into something positive.” Nate’s commitment to service — to his nation, to his fellow Marines — and Austin’s decision to follow in his brother’s path had not just filled Bill with pride. Their devotion had humbled him. As he took stock of his life in the bleak months after losing Nate, he concluded that he needed to be more like his boys. He possessed skills that could help save lives and limbs in a land of IEDs. He needed to put himself to better use, even if it meant leaving his luxurious home, his comfortable job, his devoted wife.
“In most cases, fathers inspire sons,” he said. “In this case, sons inspire Dad.”

By the time Bill reached Iraq, the war was winding down. Sunni Muslim tribesmen in Fallujah, Ramadi, and across the western desert, once mortal enemies of the United States, were now collaborating with the Marines to beat back al-Qaeda militants. The hospital at al-Taqaddum, which had been among the busiest trauma centers in the country just two years earlier, could go a full week without a serious casualty. Bill found himself treating sore knees and shoulders, just as he had back home, and teaching young corpsmen how to attend to orthopedic wounds. He had time to visit Austin, who was stationed at another large Marine base in western Iraq.

When Bill returned home that fall, his wife and son assumed his thirst for deployment had been satiated. They knew he wouldn’t be going back to his Reno practice, but they expected him to transition to full-time work at the Pendleton hospital, which he did — for a few weeks. Then he got word that a position was open on the next rotation of doctors to Afghanistan. The captain in charge, one of the pioneers of combat surgery, wanted Krissoff to join him. Bill hadn’t even unpacked his bags from Iraq.

“I know I’ve been gone, but this is probably an opportunity that won’t come up again,” he told Christine. “I’m not getting any younger. And I’m all trained up.”

She looked him in the eyes. “Well,” she said, “you better go.”


Krissoff began work at the main trauma center at Camp Bastion, in southwestern Afghanistan, in February 2010, the same month Marines commenced a bloody assault on Marjah, a Taliban sanctuary riddled with snipers and makeshift antipersonnel mines. His first case was a triple amputee. Over the next seven months, he would serve as the primary or assisting surgeon on 225 serious casualties. He lost count of the number of amputations he performed.

He had expected a caseload unlike anything he had experienced in the civilian world — before joining the military, he had performed only one multiple amputation in his career, on a drunk who had fallen onto a train track — but nothing could have prepared him for the frequency of horrific injuries that rolled through the trauma bay doors at the hospital at Camp Bastion. There were times when all five operating tables were in use, and Krissoff had to scurry among them. He and his fellow doctors once performed twenty-four surgeries in a single day. “All you’re thinking about is how to patch them up,” he said. “You’re cranking.”

Back then, Afghanistan was an orthopedic surgeon’s war. In the southern deserts that were the focus of President Obama’s troop surge, the Taliban’s weapon of choice was a five-liter plastic jug packed with homemade, fertilizer-based explosives, buried in the ground and triggered with a balsa-wood pressure plate. It was crude but ingenious: because the only metal parts in the device were tiny pieces of wire, it was nearly invisible to American bomb detectors. If a U.S. or Afghan trooper stepped on one, the force of the explosion was usually enough to sever a leg or two, and perhaps an arm.

A generation ago, such wounds were often fatal. By 2010, however, all U.S. service members in that part of Afghanistan kept two or more tourniquets affixed to their ballistic vests, allowing comrades to stanch the bleeding from severed limbs. Medical evacuation helicopters would bring the wounded to Camp Bastion in less than an hour. Then the really difficult work would begin: agonizing about where to amputate; cauterizing blood vessels; searching for shrapnel inside the abdomen; combating infections; trying to ensure young men would be capable of fathering a child when they healed. If a patient arrived at the Camp Bastion hospital with a heartbeat, he or she had a 97 percent chance of surviving.

When he wasn’t working shifts that could stretch to sixteen hours, depending on the pace of medevac choppers alighting at the hospital’s landing pad, Krissoff slept in a tent he shared with ten other medical personnel. He didn’t have more than a few days off in seven months.

“There wasn’t any ‘No, I’m not doing that today. I’m off.’ Everybody just works when you need help.”

Despite the intensity and privation, the daily exposure to the horrors of war, those seven months were the most rewarding time in Krissoff’s three-decade-long orthopedic career. It wasn’t the challenge or the adventure. It was about the Marines and others in his care. He chatted up those who could talk, reveling in their stories.

He treated one sergeant who had been shot in the arm in Marjah and was missing a chunk of his bicep. “Doc,” the Marine told him, “you need to know one thing: I returned fire.” Krissoff cleaned out the bullet hole — it was the simplest case he had treated in weeks — and told the Marine he’d be sent home. “What do you mean ‘home’?” the Marine said. “I’m going back to my unit.”

To minimize the chance of infection, military doctors prefer to leave many wounds open for several days, with just a gauze cover, as opposed to stitching them up right away. Krissoff struck a deal with the Marine: once he closed the wound, the Marine could return to Marjah.

A few weeks later, Krissoff treated another Marine from the same unit. “How’s that sergeant doing?” he asked.

“He got shot again — this time, in the hip,” the other Marine said. “But he got treated in Kandahar, and he’s back on duty again.”

Where do we get these guys? Krissoff thought. He’s a war fighter. He’s not going to give up. He’s not going home. His guys are still there. You can’t explain that to most civilians.

Marines who learned Krissoff’s story would come up to thank him in the dining hall. He’d always turn it around. “Thank you for what you are doing,” he’d often say. “Your service humbles me.”

Military doctors in field hospitals are loath to take sole credit for treating patients. “It’s a team effort. You don’t do this stuff by yourself,” Krissoff said. But senior officers familiar with his work readily volunteer what he is too modest to divulge: he led or assisted surgical teams that saved dozens of American, British, and Afghan lives.

“He made an enormous contribution,” said Stephen F. McCartney, a now-retired Navy captain who served as the command surgeon to the Marine brigade in southwestern Afghanistan when Krissoff began his deployment. McCartney said Krissoff’s age was an invaluable asset. “He brought experience and judgment that can only come with many years of practicing medicine,” McCartney said.

Major General Larry Nicholson, who had been Nate’s regimental commander in Iraq, served as the top Marine general in southern Afghanistan for the initial months of Krissoff’s time at the Camp Bastion hospital. “Bill made a difference for good every day,” said Nicholson. “There can be no greater act of love by a father for his fallen son than to take his place in the ranks in the midst of war.”


For James Raffetto, as for so many of those who wound up on Krissoff’s operating table, it was horrible luck that got him there. A single footfall on a bit of earth in southern Afghanistan that was home to a bomb.

Raffetto was a strapping, Pennsylvania-raised Navy medic. Not a medical doctor like Krissoff, but a corpsman. He traveled with elite reconnaissance Marines in the field — as Nate had — treating wounds until the medevac birds arrived. His platoon had been patrolling a small desert village used by the Taliban as a staging area for attacks on Marine units based in nearby farming communities. It had been an easy day. The houses suspected to be insurgent hideouts were empty, and residents had been willing to talk to the Marines. (Taliban intimidation usually tied their tongues.) One father even asked Raffetto to examine his sick daughter.

As they departed from the last insurgent compound, Raffetto spotted a box of gauze on the ground. Ah, this must be a Taliban field hospital, he thought. He took a step toward the box, and the ground rose with an earsplitting boom. He flew into the air. A second later, he slammed into the ground facedown. He tried to turn over, but he couldn’t. As he winced in pain, a platoon mate flipped him on his back. Raffetto opened his eyes and looked down.

Left leg gone.

Right leg gone.

Left arm dangling by a tendon.

Right arm intact, but battered and bleeding.

“Doc,” one of the Marines called out, “tell us what to do.”

Raffetto knew that if he was to survive, he needed to cut off the blood gushing from his limbs. With his right hand, he grabbed a tourniquet off his ballistic vest and wrapped it around his left arm above the elbow. Then he directed his comrades to do the same for his legs, and to shoot him up with morphine.

They strapped a standard-issue nylon and plastic tourniquet on his left thigh. Then they tried to do the same on his right side. But so much of his leg was gone that they needed to cinch the band near his hip, at the widest part of his meaty thigh. The tourniquet broke. As did a second one. As death from blood loss grew imminent, a quick-thinking sergeant took off his canvas belt and pulled it around Raffetto’s thigh. Then he grabbed a spare machine gun barrel, pushed it between the belt and the leg, and twisted it around to tighten the belt and cut off the flow of blood.

Through it all, Raffetto remained conscious.

I’m fucked up, he thought, but I don’t think I’m gonna die.

As they waited for the medevac chopper, he joked with his buddies, who knelt around him. “Survive!” he said to them — and himself — doing his best to imitate Sergeant Lincoln Osiris in the movie farce Tropic Thunder. And he asked them to give a message to his wife. “Tell Emily I love her.”

A British evacuation helicopter arrived in less than fifteen minutes. As Raffetto was hoisted aboard, the flight nurse asked him how he felt.

What a charming accent, he thought. Then he passed out.

When Raffetto arrived at the Camp Bastion hospital, Krissoff didn’t know where to begin. He had seen terrible trauma, but nothing like this. His patient was a pile of bloodied flesh atop a gurney.

“This guy is in bad shape,” he muttered to himself. Treating such grievous wounds sometimes prompted a quiet doubt. What are we doing? Are we saving people who are going to have no life? But he pushed the thought out of his head. Here was a fellow American. A sailor. A young man who had volunteered to serve his nation. Krissoff vowed to do all he could to save the patient.

He and his fellow physicians sealed off blood vessels. They cleaned the exposed tissue. They sought to salvage as much of Raffetto’s right hand as possible.

A day later, Raffetto was bundled on a C-17 transport aircraft and flown to the Army’s hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and then on to the Navy’s medical center in Bethesda. Unlike Krissoff’s patients in the civilian world, whom he would check up on in the days after surgery, he knew he would not see Raffetto again. That was true of most of his patients. Did they bounce back quickly? Suffer more complications? Succumb to the injuries? He usually had no idea.

A little more than a year later, after Krissoff had returned to his home in Rancho Santa Fe, California, he tracked down Raffetto’s phone number. When he called, Raffetto’s wife, Emily, picked up. They had been married for just four months before James deployed. But she never wavered when he returned to America covered in bandages, connected to half a dozen tubes, and missing three limbs. She remained by his side as he convalesced in Bethesda for two years, first as an inpatient and later as a daily member of the rehabilitation center, where he was fitted with prosthetics and slowly, painfully learned to walk again.

Krissoff asked Emily if he could talk to his former patient.

“I’m sure he’d like to,” she replied. “But we’re on our way to renew our vows.”

Later that afternoon, clad in his Navy dress uniform, Raffetto walked down the aisle with his bride.

Eventually, doctor and patient did connect. When they did, Raffetto told Krissoff that he was learning to drive a handicap-enabled truck and looking for work.

“You’re just amazing,” Krissoff told him.

“Thanks to you,” Raffetto replied.

Krissoff began calling periodically. It wasn’t medical curiosity that drove him to keep in touch. He admired the young man’s perseverance, his don’t-dwell-on-the-negative attitude. As Raffetto shared milestones in his recovery — landing a full-time job with the federal government, fending for himself for three weeks while Emily was on a trip to Europe — Krissoff’s cheers were valuable reminders to Raffetto that he wasn’t just healing, he was thriving.

As amazed as Krissoff was at Raffetto’s recovery, Raffetto was similarly awed as he came to learn Bill’s story through their calls.

“To join the military at sixty — wow,” Raffetto said as he zipped through his kitchen in a power-assisted wheelchair. “And not like he tried, someone said no, and he said, ‘Well, all right.'”

Raffetto pulled up to his dining table and thought for a moment.

“You can be a war hero even if you never fired a weapon in combat,” he said. “What he did — now, that’s uncommon valor.”


October 30, 2014

Honor, Lt. Col. Goodson USMC, thanks to Brother Tom

Burial at Sea
by Lt Col George Goodson, USMC (Ret)

In my 76th year, the events of my life appear to me, from time to time, as a series of vignettes. Some were significant; most were trivial…

War is the seminal event in the life of everyone that has endured it. Though I fought in Korea and the Dominican Republic and was wounded there, Vietnam was my war.

Now 42 years have passed and, thankfully, I rarely think of those days in Cambodia , Laos , and the panhandle of North Vietnam where small teams of Americans and Montangards fought much larger elements of the North Vietnamese Army. Instead I see vignettes: some exotic, some mundane:

*The smell of Nuc Mam.
*The heat, dust, and humidity.
*The blue exhaust of cycles clogging the streets.
*Elephants moving silently through the tall grass.
*Hard eyes behind the servile smiles of the villagers.
*Standing on a mountain in Laos and hearing a tiger roar.
*A young girl squeezing my hand as my medic delivered her baby.
*The flowing Ao Dais of the young women biking down Tran Hung Dao.
*My two years as Casualty Notification Officer in North Carolina , Virginia , and Maryland .

It was late 1967. I had just returned after 18 months in Vietnam . Casualties were increasing. I moved my family from Indianapolis to Norfolk , rented a house, enrolled my children in their fifth or sixth new school, and bought a second car.

A week later, I put on my uniform and drove 10 miles to Little Creek, Virginia. I hesitated before entering my new office. Appearance is important to career Marines. I was no longer, if ever, a poster Marine. I had returned from my third tour in Vietnam only 30 days before. At 5’9″, I now weighed 128 pounds – 37 pounds below my normal weight. My uniforms fit ludicrously, my skin was yellow from malaria medication, and I think I had a twitch or two.

I straightened my shoulders, walked into the office, looked at the nameplate on a Staff Sergeant’s desk and said, “Sergeant Jolly, I’m Lieutenant Colonel Goodson. Here are my orders and my Qualification Jacket.”

Sergeant Jolly stood, looked carefully at me, took my orders, stuck out his hand; we shook and he asked, “How long were you there, Colonel?” I replied “18 months this time.” Jolly breathed, you must be a slow learner Colonel.” I smiled.

Jolly said, “Colonel, I’ll show you to your office and bring in the Sergeant Major.

I said, “No, let’s just go straight to his office.”

Jolly nodded, hesitated, and lowered his voice, “Colonel, the Sergeant Major. He’s been in this job two years. He’s packed pretty tight. I’m worried about him.” I nodded.

Jolly escorted me into the Sergeant Major’s office. “Sergeant Major, this is Colonel Goodson, the new Commanding Office. The Sergeant Major stood, extended his hand and said, “Good to see you again, Colonel.”

I responded, “Hello Walt, how are you?” Jolly looked at me, raised an eyebrow, walked out, and closed the door.

I sat down with the Sergeant Major. We had the obligatory cup of coffee and talked about mutual acquaintances. Walt’s stress was palpable. Finally, I said, “Walt, what’s the h-ll’s wrong?”

He turned his chair, looked out the window and said, “George, you’re going to wish you were back in Nam before you leave here. I’ve been in the Marine Corps since 1939. I was in the Pacific 36 months, Korea for 14 months, and Vietnam for 12 months… Now I come here to bury these kids. I’m putting my letter in. I can’t take it anymore.”

I said, “OK Walt. If that’s what you want, I’ll endorse your request for retirement and do what I can to push it through Headquarters Marine Corps.”

Sergeant Major Walt Xxxxx retired 12 weeks later. He had been a good Marine for 28 years, but he had seen too much death and too much suffering. He was used up.

Over the next 16 months, I made 28 death notifications, conducted 28 military funerals, and made 30 notifications to the families of Marines that were severely wounded or missing in action. Most of the details of those casualty notifications have now, thankfully, faded from memory. Four, however, remain.

My third or fourth day in Norfolk , I was notified of the death of a 19 year old Marine. This notification came by telephone from Headquarters Marine Corps. The information detailed:

*Name, rank, and serial number.
*Name, address, and phone number of next of kin.
*Date of and limited details about the Marine’s death.
*Approximate date the body would arrive at the Norfolk Naval Air Station.
*A strong recommendation on whether the casket should be opened or closed.

The boy’s family lived over the border in North Carolina , about 60 miles away. I drove there in a Marine Corps staff car. Crossing the state line intoNorth Carolina , I stopped at a small country store / service station / Post Office. I went in to ask directions.

Three people were in the store. A man and woman approached the small Post Office window. The man held a package. The Store owner walked up and addressed them by name, “Hello John. Good morning Mrs. Cooper.”

I was stunned. My casualty’s next-of-kin’s name was John Cooper!

I hesitated, then stepped forward and said, “I beg your pardon. Are you Mr. and Mrs. John Cooper of (address.)

The father looked at me – I was in uniform – and then, shaking, bent at the waist, he vomited. His wife looked horrified at him and then at me. Understanding came into her eyes and she collapsed in slow motion. I think I caught her before she hit the floor.

The owner took a bottle of whiskey out of a drawer and handed it to Mr. Cooper who drank. I answered their questions for a few minutes. Then I drove them home in my staff car. The storeowner locked the store and followed in their truck. We stayed an hour or so until the family began arriving.

I returned the storeowner to his business. He thanked me and said, “Mister, I wouldn’t have your job for a million dollars.” I shook his hand and said; “Neither would I.”

I vaguely remember the drive back to Norfolk . Violating about five Marine Corps regulations, I drove the staff car straight to my house. I sat with my family while they ate dinner, went into the den, closed the door, and sat there all night, alone.

My Marines steered clear of me for days. I had made my first death notification.

Weeks passed with more notifications and more funerals. I borrowed Marines from the local Marine Corps Reserve and taught them to conduct a military funeral: how to carry a casket, how to fire the volleys and how to fold the flag.

When I presented the flag to the mother, wife, or father, I always said, “All Marines share in your grief.” I had been instructed to say, “On behalf of a grateful nation….” I didn’t think the nation was grateful, so I didn’t say that.

Sometimes, my emotions got the best of me and I couldn’t speak. When that happened, I just handed them the flag and touched a shoulder. They would look at me and nod. Once a mother said to me, “I’m so sorry you have this terrible job.” My eyes filled with tears and I leaned over and kissed her.

Six weeks after my first notification, I had another. This was a young PFC. I drove to his mother’s house. As always, I was in uniform and driving a Marine Corps staff car. I parked in front of the house, took a deep breath, and walked towards the house. Suddenly the door flew open, a middle-aged woman rushed out. She looked at me and ran across the yard, screaming “NO! NO! NO! NO!”

I hesitated. Neighbors came out. I ran to her, grabbed her, and whispered stupid things to reassure her. She collapsed. I picked her up and carried her into the house. Eight or nine neighbors followed. Ten or fifteen later, the father came in followed by ambulance personnel. I have no recollection of leaving.

The funeral took place about two weeks later. We went through the drill. The mother never looked at me. The father looked at me once and shook his head sadly.

One morning, as I walked in the office, the phone was ringing. Sergeant Jolly held the phone up and said, “You’ve got another one, Colonel.” I nodded, walked into my office, picked up the phone, took notes, thanked the officer making the call, I have no idea why, and hung up. Jolly, who had listened, came in with a special Telephone Directory that translates telephone numbers into the person’s address and place of employment.

The father of this casualty was a Longshoreman. He lived a mile from my office. I called the Longshoreman’s Union Office and asked for the Business Manager. He answered the phone, I told him who I was, and asked for the father’s schedule.

The Business Manager asked, “Is it his son?” I said nothing. After a moment, he said, in a low voice, “Tom is at home today.” I said, “Don’t call him. I’ll take care of that.” The Business Manager said, “Aye, Aye Sir,” and then explained, “Tom and I were Marines in WWII.”

I got in my staff car and drove to the house. I was in uniform. I knocked and a woman in her early forties answered the door. I saw instantly that she was clueless. I asked, “Is Mr. Smith home?” She smiled pleasantly and responded, “Yes, but he’s eating breakfast now. Can you come back later?” I said, “I’m sorry. It’s important. I need to see him now.”

She nodded, stepped back into the beach house and said, “Tom, it’s for you.”

A moment later, a ruddy man in his late forties, appeared at the door. He looked at me, turned absolutely pale, steadied himself, and said, “Jesus Christ man, he’s only been there three weeks!”

Months passed. More notifications and more funerals. Then one day while I was running, Sergeant Jolly stepped outside the building and gave a loud whistle, two fingers in his mouth. I never could do that… and held an imaginary phone to his ear.

Another call from Headquarters Marine Corps. I took notes, said, “Got it.” and hung up. I had stopped saying “Thank You” long ago.

Jolly, “Where?”

Me, “Eastern Shore of Maryland . The father is a retired Chief Petty Officer. His brother will accompany the body back from Vietnam …”

Jolly shook his head slowly, straightened, and then said, “This time of day, it’ll take three hours to get there and back. I’ll call the Naval Air Station and borrow a helicopter. And I’ll have Captain Tolliver get one of his men to meet you and drive you to the Chief’s home.”

He did, and 40 minutes later, I was knocking on the father’s door. He opened the door, looked at me, then looked at the Marine standing at parade rest beside the car, and asked, “Which one of my boys was it, Colonel?”

I stayed a couple of hours, gave him all the information, my office and home phone number and told him to call me, anytime.

He called me that evening about 2300 (11:00 PM). “I’ve gone through my boy’s papers and found his will. He asked to be buried at sea. Can you make that happen?” I said, “Yes I can, Chief. I can and I will.”

My wife who had been listening said, “Can you do that?” I told her, “I have no idea. But I’m going to break my ass trying.”

I called Lieutenant General Alpha Bowser, Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force Atlantic, at home about 2330, explained the situation, and asked, “General, can you get me a quick appointment with the Admiral at Atlantic Fleet Headquarters?” General Bowser said,” George, you be there tomorrow at 0900. He will see you.

I was and the Admiral did. He said coldly, “How can the Navy help the Marine Corps, Colonel.” I told him the story. He turned to his Chief of Staff and said, “Which is the sharpest destroyer in port?” The Chief of Staff responded with a name.

The Admiral called the ship, “Captain, you’re going to do a burial at sea. You’ll report to a Marine Lieutenant Colonel Goodson until this mission is completed…”

He hung up, looked at me, and said, “The next time you need a ship, Colonel, call me. You don’t have to sic Al Bowser on my ass.” I responded, “Aye Aye, Sir” and got the h-ll out of his office.

I went to the ship and met with the Captain, Executive Officer, and the Senior Chief. Sergeant Jolly and I trained the ship’s crew for four days. Then Jolly raised a question none of us had thought of. He said, “These government caskets are air tight. How do we keep it from floating?”

All the high priced help including me sat there looking dumb. Then the Senior Chief stood and said, “Come on Jolly. I know a bar where the retired guys from World War II hang out.”

They returned a couple of hours later, slightly the worst for wear, and said, “It’s simple; we cut four 12″ holes in the outer shell of the casket on each side and insert 300 lbs of lead in the foot end of the casket. We can handle that, no sweat.”

The day arrived. The ship and the sailors looked razor sharp. General Bowser, the Admiral, a US Senator, and a Navy Band were on board. The sealed casket was brought aboard and taken below for modification. The ship got underway to the 12-fathom depth.

The sun was hot. The ocean flat. The casket was brought aft and placed on a catafalque. The Chaplin spoke. The volleys were fired. The flag was removed, folded, and I gave it to the father. The band played “Eternal Father Strong to Save.” The casket was raised slightly at the head and it slid into the sea.

The heavy casket plunged straight down about six feet. The incoming water collided with the air pockets in the outer shell. The casket stopped abruptly, rose straight out of the water about three feet, stopped, and slowly slipped back into the sea. The air bubbles rising from the sinking casket sparkled in the in the sunlight as the casket disappeared from sight forever….

The next morning I called a personal friend, Lieutenant General Oscar Peatross, at Headquarters Marine Corps and said, “General, get me out of here. I can’t take this anymore.” I was transferred two weeks later.

I was a good Marine but, after 17 years, I had seen too much death and too much suffering. I was used up.

Vacating the house, my family and I drove to the office in a two-car convoy. I said my goodbyes. Sergeant Jolly walked out with me. He waved at my family, looked at me with tears in his eyes, came to attention, saluted, and said, “Well Done, Colonel. Well Done.”

I felt as if I had received the Medal of Honor!

A veteran is someone who, at one point, wrote a blank
check made payable to ‘The United States of America ‘
for an amount of up to and including their life.

That is Honor and there are way too many people in this country who no longer understand it.

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