It has been more than four years since “Pedro,” MCAS Cherry Point’s last remaining Search and Rescue CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, was flown “off into the sunset,” ending a distinguished and highly visible career of USMC support to the local community. A discussion I recently had with my Havelock born and bred wife, Arlene, along with the recent anniversary of Pedro’s departure is a good time to consider the impact of diminishing support – at least the highly visible kind – that Marines provide local communities in eastern North Carolina.
While it’s clear during combat how Marines support our nation by defending it, it’s the highly visible support in garrison – using assets like taxpayer-provided equipment to support the community and Marines in uniform serving in an official capacity – where citizens were once actually able to actually see and feel and hear their Marines. Since Pedro’s departure, Marines are less discernible … less observable.
By reviewing this shrinking support, it is not my intent to make light of, or reduce the incalculable value of, the volunteer hours Marines from Cherry Point, Camp Lejeune and New River provide our local communities. And there’s still official, although less visible, support provided by Marines to local law enforcement with capabilities like bomb and ordinance containment and disposal. And we shouldn’t forget the very visible support the 2d Marine Aircraft Wing and 2d Marine Division bands provide local community events. And there are other ways the Marines officially support local communities as well, but few are as visible as Pedro was.
Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point officials acknowledged the visibility gap left by Pedro’s departure writing on station’s website four years ago, “While Cherry Point-based Marines live, work in and volunteer thousands of hours every year to the local community, there is no better symbol of the Marine Corps’ link to the community than the regular appearance of these orange and gray angels winging their way through the Carolina skies.”
And it wasn’t just Pedro’s departure that signaled a reduction in official, highly visible, Marine Corps support to the local community. That kind of support has actually been shrinking for years.
In 1977 upon checking into MCAS New River for CH-46 helicopter training, one of my first responsibilities – a Marine Officer in uniform – was to serve with the police department in dealing with rowdy Marines on Court Street in Jacksonville. Court Street was an unruly section of town populated with girly joints and bars frequented by Marines still transitioning from combat duty in Vietnam. The intent of this program was to help the police help Marines stay out of trouble. Still, this observable support to local law enforcement ended a year or two later.
While serving at MCAS New River, we were assigned “medevac” duties supporting local communities with our CH-46 helicopters, a precursor to Pedro. We had the “duty” in the evenings and on weekends and were required to be in the air 30 minutes after getting the medevac call. We pre-briefed the mission, pre-flight inspected the aircraft and set up the cockpit for a rapid “medevac start.” We prided ourselves in getting into the air before the 30-minute deadline as if lives depended upon it.
Lives did depend on it, including possibly my own “life.” During my service at New River, I made several trips to hospitals with traffic accident and burn victims and premature babies in incubators strapped down in the cargo hold of our aircraft tended by civilian nurses. My wife Arlene and I wonder if we might have first met each other on one of those medevac flights, sparking our future together. While we don’t know for certain, our faces covered by helmets and goggles and our voices muffled by the deafening noise of grinding rotor blades and jet engines, it is possible because Arlene was serving as a nurse at that time and made several of those medevac flights with premature babies.
We’d set our helo down at hospital landing pads, citizens gawking at our massive helo kicking up a dust storm as we landed. We didn’t have the dedicated medevac training that professional air ambulance outfits like “Life Flight” has today, but we got the job done in very visible and dedicated support of the local community.
Those MCAS New River medevac flights ended sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Pedro ultimately would take over some of those duties … but not all of them.
But that visibility gap actually started to widen as far back as the mid-1960s. When Arlene attended Annunciation Catholic Elementary School on U.S. 70 in Havelock, it was the Marines from Cherry Point that transported her and her fellow students to and back from school in USMC buses.
Undeniably, Pedro is missed and was a very recognizable aspect of the Marines’ support to its local communities. But I doubt that even Pedro’s visibility could transcend that of fresh-faced school children – the future of our nation – being delivered to and from school in USMC buses.
As we reflect on the end of Pedro, I just hope the visibility gap between Americans and their Marines hasn’t widened too much.
Newspaper columnist Barry Fetzer lives in Hubert.