Sunday, March 11, 2018
It's the afternoon of June 2, 1995. Captain Scott O'Grady is piloting his F-16 jet fighter to enforce a NATO no-fly zone over Bosnia when kaboom! A fiery explosion rips through his airplane from 10 feet behind his seat.
Suddenly, his plane is in free-fall and disintegrating. The cabin is engulfed in flames and separated from the fuselage. His flight suit is aflame as the plane's automatic seat ejector fails. O'Grady's frantic thoughts are searching for any way to save his life.
The only move is to reach down to pull the manual lever that activates his personal backpack parachute. He does so, praying it, too, wasn't on fire.
The jolting ejection force of that chute opening immediately yanks the 29-year-old pilot into frigid, oxygen-depleted air five miles above the earth.
In an instant, he's drifting at the whim of the winds, trying to gather thoughts while realizing he'd been hit by a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile, concealed by cloud cover, that Serbian forces had moved directly beneath his plane and that of a fellow F-16 pilot flying alongside him.
Looking far down, he can see countryside and villages in the distance. That bucolic scene brings a few seconds of peace before being interrupted by the sight of military vehicles converging below, patiently awaiting his arrival. A plume of smoke arises in the distance, marking the crash of his jet.
The future looks dim, if there would even be a future beyond the 25 quiet minutes it was taking to float to the ground.
During that time he focuses his thoughts on the three most important aspects of his life: his Christian faith, his family, and a patriotic love of country.
This is how O'Grady began the tale of his six-day ordeal avoiding an enemy intent on his death, while using ant swarms and vegetation for food, and dirty water wrung from his socks to stay alive. His ordeal later would inspire documentaries and the Hollywood movie Behind Enemy Lines.
O'Grady was addressing a crowd of nearly 200 who'd come to North Arkansas College's Durand Center in Harrison to hear the 27th national speaker in the annual John Paul Hammerschmidt public lecture series.
Floating steadily toward the hostile forces, O'Grady said he looked for brush that might hide him. But there was only a line of trees, some with branches draped to the ground. He prayed the breezes would lead him there. He landed near them, shed his chute and sprinted for the nearby forest.
He kept heading as deeply as possible into leafy cover, such as it was. Finding a place to snuggle as deeply as he could beneath drooping trees, he became as motionless and quiet as possible for three hours until darkness fell.
All the while, he could hear engines, men shouting and gunfire. Many were searching intently for the prize O'Grady represented. "At times they passed within just feet of me," he said. "I was expecting to be discovered at any moment."
The radio he carried proved useless since it required a line-of-sight connection. He was in a lower area, preventing him from connecting with rescuers. He also knew Serbian forces listened in on U.S. radio contact. Realizing how he had to find some signal strength to survive, he had to seek higher ground and let others know his location.
O'Grady began shivering and quickly became hypothermic. He chose to move very slowly, taking 30 minutes to ease his hand into his pocket and remove a compass. "Being caught would have meant certain death," he said.
His most dangerous period was daytime, when he'd make himself as small and quiet as possible, remain motionless, and pray to be saved. He said he thought of his family and prayed continually, which brought him ever closer to connecting with God. Darkness became O'Grady's friend. It was the time he felt safe to move about, always toward higher ground.
All the while, he relied on survival training, knowing which plants were nonpoisonous, relishing light mists when they fell, and fascinated by ant colonies that also served a nutrition source. "They have more protein than steak," he told the audience.
Over the next six days, he methodically covered just over two miles until reaching higher ground. As divine intervention would have it, a friend and pilot who'd been on the search from the beginning was running low on fuel but decided to turn for a final swoop anyway. In doing so, he made contact with O'Grady's individual radio frequency. Plans were made for rescue the following morning.
It was the longest night of O'Grady's life as he anxiously waited and prayed. After daybreak he smiled ear to ear as a large helicopter arose from over a nearby hill with "U.S. Marines" emblazoned on its side. Sixty-two had gone in to save Captain O'Grady. And 63 would safely return.
Inside the helicopter that in departing was struck several times by enemy fire, O'Grady said he looked with gratitude into the quietly confident smiles on the painted faces around him. In that sacred and profoundly thankful moment, "I saw my heroes were 19-year-old Marines."
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at email@example.com.
Editorial on 03/11/2018
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