Surviving With Pride Of Service

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - March 30, 2005
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When stepson Marine Capt. Kyle Ditto (whom I have known since he was 4, and love and respect as one of my own sons) completed his 10-day survival training at Warner Springs east of San Diego two years ago, Susan and I happened to be in San Diego, where I had a speaking engagement.

We were able to meet Kyle right after he “came down from the mountain” and hang out with him over the weekend. He was eager to tell us about his ordeal: seven days in the wilderness living off the land for the most part, while evading capture by “Aggressor Forces,” and the last three days, hungry and filthy, in a mock POW compound at the mercy of those same forces.

For these “Aggressor Forces” who wear authentic looking “enemy” uniforms, this is their full-time duty and they become very adept — and quite convincing — at playing the Bad Guys. Besides temporarily withholding food and water, they are authorized to interrogate intensely, intimidate, browbeat, impose solitary in an extremely confined/uncomfortable space, and make their “captives” as miserable as possible without inflicting physical injury. (As I write, I realize it’s about the same way we treat the enemy combatants we hold at Guantanamo.)

During the entire weekend we encouraged Kyle to tell us about the ordeal — which he was eager to do — but every time he got into how bad or scary it was, he’d glance at me, pause, look a little sheepish, and say, “Well, it wasn’t anything compared to what you went through (as a POW in Vietnam), but ya know …!” And I felt bad because he felt uncomfortable just telling us in a natural way how bad it had been. But, of course, for him, in the context of his experience, it had been rough.

Well, since mid-September to mid-March Kyle has been assigned from his F/A-18 squadron in Japan to temporary duty in Iraq. He returned just in time to join us for a ski vacation at Lake Tahoe. Our reunion at the Reno Airport was a mixture of joy, relief, gratitude and pride. And for Susan and me, prayers of thanksgiving for his safe return.


As an air liaison officer at small outlying airfields around Baghdad, Kyle coordinated mission-tasking from higher authority to operational squadrons at his base, taking into account aircraft, personnel and ordnance availability.

Many missions were timecritical medevacs to shuttle wounded personnel from the battle areas. The duty was 12 on and 12 off, his weapon always within reach, lonely living and working surroundings, but with more responsibility than a young Marine captain might have bargained for. On several occasions his base absorbed random rocket attacks — the kind where survival and luck are synonymous.

During the ski week Kyle had plenty of opportunities to share his experiences and thoughts with us, and with friends and family who joined us. Gone were the comparisons with my experience, the sheepish glances or embarrassment because of my presence. Here was a young man — barely 10 years out of Kalaheo High — eager to get back to his Hornet squadron and the flying he loves, yet deriving indescribable confidence and personal satisfaction from his intense experiences of the past six months. And he will never have to regret — like so many young Americans — that he missed playing a vital role in the mission of his generation: the defense of his country and loved ones from global terrorists.

No parent ever wants to see their son or daughter go to war, and having experienced the joy and relief of a son returned safely, I can’t even imagine the grief and sense of loss of hundreds of America’s families over the past two years. But when they do come home — and thank God the vast majority do — they come home with a sense of accomplishment, confidence, and pride in service to country. They will always care more about how their taxes are spent, their nation’s foreign policy and their national leadership. Having given a piece of their life to America, they will always love and care more about America.

Honestly, in a way, it’s a shame they all don’t have that opportunity.

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