The Second Mile

The Second Mile

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Second Mile

Somebody made a mistake, I thought as I skimmed the Vietnam treetops in my unarmed Cessna. My radio had reported enemy troops below, but as I circled the site, scouring the elephant grass, I saw nothing.

My job as forward air controller with the U.S. Air Force in 1966 was to spot enemy targets and radio information back so headquarters could send attack aircraft. That morning my patrol had been uneventful. Then my radio crackled, “Airedale Pup, this is Airedale.”

It was Captain Jim Ahmann, using our personal code words and calling from our forward operating base at Dong Tre. I was his junior officer, so naturally I was Pup. My little single-engine monoplane, carrying only smoke rockets to mark targets, was Bird Dog.

Ahmann continued: “We have a reported sighting of 200 or 300 Viet Cong in the open.” They had been spotted by an Army forward observer plane.

“On my way,” I answered, banking Bird Dog toward the coordinates.

However, as I reached the given location, I could find no sign of the forward observer plane. I scrutinized the area, flying low, worrying about VC ground fire and remembering some bullet holes I had earlier found in Bird Dog’s thin skin. I circled again. Still nothing.

“Airedale, there’s nothing here.” I heard our fighters checking in on the other radio frequency. “Have the fighters hold high.” I was about to call off the search. I had done my job.

“Have you?” demanded a gruff voice. I winced. Despite the passage of years, I could almost see his sharp features in the windshield before me: Father John Mulroy, one of my teachers at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, New York.

He had nailed me to the wall when I submitted my first class paper. I had confidently handed it in, thinking it was complete.

Father Mulroy did not. He gave me a C. I was shocked. He knew I wanted to go to the Air Force Academy, and I needed good grades. When I questioned the C, he fastened me with his dark, penetrating eyes. “That’s what it was worth,” he snapped. He then rattled off a list of information sources. “Did you check into them?”

“I didn’t think it was necessary,” I said weakly.

“You only did enough to get by,” he said. “When Christ asks us to go the second mile, he means making that extra effort in everything.” Father Mulroy tapped his desk. “Out in the world, that can make a difference in getting a promotion— or saving a life. Don’t try to ride Easy Street and expect to wear the stars of a general.”

On my next paper I dug deeper. It still wasn’t good enough for Father Mulroy. “God put more into you than you think,” he said. “Don’t sell him short.”

Try as I might, he kept sandpapering me. The more he did, the more I gritted my teeth. “I’ll show him,” I muttered— which was just what he wanted.

When I didn’t make the starting football team as a fullback, I switched to defense, concentrated on becoming a fierce tackler and won a starting position. This, I hoped, would help me get into the Academy.

After the Academy turned me down, I went to the University of Pennsylvania, determined to put in a strong enough showing to make the Academy the next year. I earned high scores, won a starting spot on the football team, pored over Academy study guides, reapplied and got in.

After I graduated I volunteered for Vietnam, then as a forward air controller, one of the more hazardous flying assignments in the military. Once in Vietnam, I joined Project Delta—the elite hunter-killer teams of the Green Berets who operated behind enemy lines.

Now in Bird Dog, here was Father Mulroy again.

I radioed base. “Something’s wrong,” I reported. “I need some time. Give me another frequency. I’ve got to raise the Army forward observer.”

As the new frequency came through, a swarm of Army helicopter gunships roared under me, turning in a large arc as if searching for something.

I called the Army plane on the new frequency. No response. I tried again and again to raise the mystery ship. I couldn’t give up. I had to reach this guy!

Finally, a response. “This is Sundance X Ray.”

“Do you have a target?” I asked.

“I’ve got 300 VC in the open, and I’m trying to locate our gunships.”

It was obvious that Sundance was nowhere near the coordinates I had been given. But where was he? I had to find him. Timing was critical.

“Sundance, what do you see beneath you?” He described a meandering river, and I tried to match his description on my map. “Okay. I think I know where you are.”

I shoved the throttle forward until my Cessna was making its full 115 miles per hour. Soon I spotted the observer plane high against the sky.

It was a small monoplane much like mine. “Lead me to the target,” I radioed. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the gunships following us. “Down there,” he called, “along the light green field. They were heading west and disappeared in the trees.”

I checked my map. We were six miles from the coordinates he had given us.

“Are you sure?” I asked, circling the location.

Then I saw them. A serpentine column moving through the elephant grass on the back of a knoll. Maybe 200 or 300 troops, all with packs. When I dipped closer, I saw they were in VC attire—a hodgepodge of dark uniforms.

As I moved to a safer altitude, I felt that familiar nudge. Something wasn’t right. My mouth dry, I flew closer, expecting the zing of bullets and the whump of heavy-weapons fire. I was about to launch my smoke rockets into the column to pinpoint it for the gunships when again something stopped me. These men didn’t take cover. They had to see me. However, we knew that VC caught in the open often behaved like friendly troops, even to the point of waving at passing aircraft.

Now the gunships, aligned for attack, began to close in. Still something stopped me from getting out of their way. In my mind’s ear I heard the distant echo of Father Mulroy’s voice: Make sure, John. Make sure.

I had to get a closer look. I cut the Cessna’s power and glided toward the elephant grass close to the column, expecting a fusillade of bullets. My heart caught. They were our Vietnamese troops—counter-guerrilla forces who wore uniforms similar to the VC’s—carrying American carbines and wearing colored scarves. Friendlies!

“Abort!” I shouted over the radio. But the gunships kept coming. They couldn’t hear me because they were on a different frequency.

I slammed the control stick full over, jammed the throttle forward and pulled into a gut-wrenching climb. My plane shuddered into a steep bank and stalled. I rolled out to the left, completing my climbing U-turn in front of and 500 feet below the oncoming gunships, positioning myself between them and the friendlies. They couldn’t fire without hitting me.

“Sundance, get the helicopters outta here!” I shouted over the radio. “They’re friendlies!”

Somehow the message got through. The choppers broke off their attack.

The Army pilot followed me back to Dong Tre. He turned out to be a lieutenant new to the country, visibly upset as he realized what had transpired. It was an honest mistake.

The Distinguished Flying Cross I was awarded for that mission meant more to me than all the other decorations I got for performance during combat.

After I returned from Vietnam, I received a note from Father Mulroy. “I had the greatest confidence in you and that God would guide and protect you,” he wrote.

Today I serve on the alumni association and, like Father Mulroy, I teach school, demanding of my students in St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York, that they go the second mile and write papers to my—and Father Mulroy’s—standards. Father Mulroy died in 1994 at seventy-seven, but his message lives on. My students know they can’t ride Easy Street and expect to reach the stars.

John F. Flanagan Jr.

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