Our Veterans: She Almost “Touched the Face of God.”
This is the second in a series of articles dedicated to our Veterans.
According to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Veterans Day is a day to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.
Of course, every man or woman who has honorably served our nation in the military is a patriot and is honored on Veterans Day.
There are some who have gone that one step farther, who have done that one deed that is truly “above and beyond,” and I am honored that I have met one of those veterans.
I have written about her before, but her story can’t be repeated often enough. So, here it is again, as we approach Veterans Day, 2009, almost exactly 10 years after Sgt. Juanyta Ortiz’ heroic actions.
The hour approached midnight as an exhausted Tech. Sgt. Juanyta Ortiz took her seat aboard a C-130 aircraft taking her on the final leg of a mission in support of Operation Southern Watch. Ortiz had taken off from Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio some 30 hours before. The flight was carrying 85 other passengers and a crew of eight from Kuwait City to Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base — normally a 15-minute flight. From there, Ortiz would take a 15-minute bus ride to her post at Ali Al Salem. It was Dec. 9, 1999.
Just about the time when Ortiz, a soft-spoken mother of two, expected the lumbering C-130 to land, a loud bang reverberated through the aircraft. Ortiz feared that the aircraft was under attack or that lightning had hit it.
The aircraft had hit the desert sands at Ahmed Al Jaber about 2,900 feet short of the runway but the pilot managed to get it airborne again. After recovering from the initial shock, Ortiz looked around and saw most of her fellow passengers just “sitting there with their eyes as big as saucers. A few others were slumped over like they were sleeping. Some had blood on them,” Ortiz recalled.
Then she saw a gaping hole on the side of the aircraft, close to the people who appeared to be sleeping. Ortiz’ human instincts and medical skills kicked in, and she rushed to one of those men.
The Dec. 10 entry in the journal Ortiz kept during her deployment describes what happened next:
A young man seated next to the hole in the aircraft had his head leaning on the shoulder of the passenger sitting on his other side noticed that the young man had blood on his face. I crawled over people and attempted to assess this ‘patient.’ He had a faint, slow pulse (carotid) and no radial pulse. I saw his wound; a deep puncture to the posterior left head.
Ortiz tried vainly to save his life, but the injuries he sustained when the C-130’s landing gear punched through the sides of the aircraft into the cabin were too severe.
Despite the heroic efforts of Ortiz and others, three passengers, including the young captain whom Ortiz had been trying to save, died as a result of the accident. Another 15 were injured.
But the ordeal was not over yet. Ortiz would continue to tend to the injured for almost another hour as the C-130 flew over the Persian Gulf, jettisoning about 3,000 gallons of fuel. The aircraft’s landing gear had been ripped off during the accident, forcing a crash landing at the Kuwait City airport.
“My fellow passengers all moved in towards each other as if in a huddle. I tried, but was unable to lean into that huddle because I was continuing to hold my patient. We were told to brace for landing, and I looped my right arm through the cargo net and held my patient with my left arm,” Ortiz wrote in her journal.
“The plane touched down and slid across the foamed tarmac. Through the hole I saw the sparks, and then the plane came to a halt. Loud bells were ringing and we were told to get out, I hesitated, not wanting to leave my patient, but was told to leave when the emergency personnel boarded the plane.”
An Air Force accident investigation cited pilot error as the cause of the accident.
Ortiz, now a community volunteer in Austin and a grandmother, retired from the Air Force with 100 percent disability because of the accident. She still has nightmares about it.
As to her performance that night in Kuwait, Ortiz, 51, chalks it all up to “just doing what she was trained for.”
However, the U.S. Air Force thought that Ortiz did more than just answer the call of duty and awarded her the prestigious Airman’s Medal — one of the highest military decorations for heroism involving risk of life.
Note: This article appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on Memorial Day, 2009. I would like to thank Editor Arnold Garcia for his support and excellent editing.
Photo of MSgt Ortiz, 2000, by then USAF Staff Sgt. Steve Thurow
The poem, “High Flight,” written by RCAF Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., has become an inspirational lyric for pilots and airmen everywhere.
It is reported that Magee was inspired to write the poem, especially the words “To touch the face of God” as he was climbing upward to in those days (1941) very high altitudes in his Spitfire V.
The poem was reproduced in the program for Master Sergeant Ortiz’ retirement ceremony in December, 2003.
How appropriate, as she, through her heroic actions high above Kuwait, did indeed almost “touch the face of God.”
Here is High Flight:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Just three months after he wrote these immortal words, Magee (A 19-year-old American serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force), was tragically killed in a mid-air collision in the skies over England on 11 December 1941.