Try to imagine the pinnacle of wartime bravery… now what comes to mind? Unhesitatingly rushing to the aid of a fallen comrade while under attack? Picking up a live grenade landing near your feet and returning it to sender? Perhaps the ultimate expression of combat courage is fearlessly diving on a grenade to protect the men around you.
Colonel Donald “Doc” Ballard did all those things as a Navy Corpsman in Vietnam one day in May of 1968. Wounded eight times, he was awarded multiple Purple Hearts and in 1970 received from President Nixon this nation's highest and most prestigious personal military decoration, the Medal of Honor. He later left the Navy and joined the Army, then served in the North Kansas City, MO police department, then the fire department after that. And he continues serving his community today.
Ballard is one of only 75 living Medal of Honor recipients, and one of only two living Navy corpsmen sharing that distinction. So it was a very special honor that he accepted the invitation to fly from Missouri to be the keynote speaker at the 12th Annual Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing 2-Fly Tournament. Ballard is more than an inspiring, engaging and witty speaker, he is also a PHW participant and credits the organization for helping him. When the bravest of the brave benefits from the special healing methods of a program like Project Healing Waters, you know that organization is doing something right.
Doc Ballard is here, by the way, because that grenade he jumped on didn’t explode right away. After waiting the typical grenade delay interval with no detonation, he rolled off it, threw it, and immediately resumed treating the Marines he was working on before the attack started. The grenade exploded in the air.
Hearing Ballard speak about his experiences I thought about those Marines whose lives were saved almost exactly fifty years ago to the day. Certainly some went on to have children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. Who knows how many lives were impacted. But there are entire families who walk and work and laugh and pray and live their lives because one humble, kind, funny man was willing to trade his life for the lives of the brothers in his care.
I meet heroes at every single Project Healing Waters event I attend. From the servicemen and women who participate in this event, to the volunteers and supporters who make it all possible, to the man who started it all, founder Ed Nicholson. Ed is a dear friend who has never fished in this great event due to his involvement in running it, but this year as responsibilities have shifted we decided to fish together as a team. It was a great honor to share this tournament with my friend, catching up while catching a few fish. We would also like to thank The Harmon Foundation for sponsoring our team. It’s been a weekend I will never forget.
It was a wonderful time for all. Much needed revenue was raised, many beautiful fish were caught and safely released, and as always old friends embraced and new friends were made, all under clear blue skies at ever beautiful Rose River Farm.
I hope you enjoy the slideshow of some of my favorite photos from this year. And if you’d like more information on how you can help Heal Those Who Serve, please visit projecthealingwaters.org.
I just finished an Audible reading of Robert Kurson’s Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon. Stories of America’s space program have piqued my curiosity for as long as I can remember. But it was Tom Hanks’ 1998 wonderful, if a little uneven, HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon that truly hooked me. Wanting more when that series ended I read Andrew Chaikin’s book, A Man on the Moon, upon which the series was largely based. I love the movies The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 and the books that inspired them.
But the story of Apollo 8, the historic first mission to the moon, has been curiously undertold. And if there’s a perfect person to tell an important, undertold story, it’s Robert Kurson. Kurson’s brilliant book Shadow Divers chronicles the discovery, exploration and eventual identification of a World War II German U-Boat off the New Jersey coast that by all accounts should not have been there. It was more fascinating and harrowing than I could have ever imagined, and I simply cannot recommend that book highly enough.
Rocket Men is a big story about brave men, strong women, brilliant minds and the daring nation that pushed them all to their limits. Sending Apollo 8 to the moon required engineers, administrators, politicians, astronauts and their families, all working under unfathomable pressure, in the midst of an unprecedented national race, with unimaginable consequences.
Kurson masterfully organizes an incredibly complex web of intertwining elements. Political intrigue, new and rapidly developing technology, the nature of space and space travel, math and physics all come together, but the book is driven and held together by the personalities at the mission’s core.
Rocket Men is also beautifully written. There is a downside, though, of having listened to it as an audiobook (which is narrated by Ray Porter, who conveys just the right tone throughout). There are passages I most certainly would have marked to go back to in a hard copy, especially if I thought I was going to review it. Some gems have stuck with me, though. In one scene Kurson follows the wife of one of the astronauts juggling hope and dread at her home as the crew lost contact around the back side of the moon, awaiting the moment contact was calculated to be reestablished. She stared at the radio, “divining good or bad from the silence.” I just love that line.
The technical requirements of the mission would be astonishing even today. To pull off such a thing using technology from 50 years ago is unthinkable. The math alone is staggering, and Kurson does a great job describing in terrifying detail just how slim the margins of error are when it comes to plotting trajectories from one spinning orb to another spinning orb which is orbiting the first. Pointing a rocket into the empty void of space at tens of thousands of miles per hour, knowing that after traveling 240,000 miles the moon will be right where it needs to be, while constantly calculating the constant decreasing weight of the craft as it burns massive amounts of fuel…well if there are unsung heroes in NASA during the Apollo missions, it’s the mathematicians.
I knew going in I was most likely going to love Rocket Men. And I surely do. Kurson captures the stress of the planning, the breathtaking scope of the feat, and the colossal importance of the accomplishment. And while Apollo 8 is a story that fills me with pride as an American, Kurson wouldn’t let me forget that this is ultimately not a national story, but a human one.
I'm pleased to announce the launch of this site which, hopefully, will now make my life a bit easier and more importantly provide a place where my friends can enjoy my content from time to time.
As many of you know, my long-standing blog Dispatches from the Potomac was hacked and infected with malware. After countless hours of conversations (okay, arguments) with host providers, and a whole lot more time reflecting on my goals, I made the very difficult decision to let the old blog go. The URL now points to the page you're on. My favorite posts have been recovered and reside in the Essays section of this site. Think of Essays as a 'Best of' collection, which I will add to over time.
My favorite photographs are here too, organized by category. Most are for sale, some are not, but mostly I just want you to enjoy and share them.
I've also included a tab for some of my favorite articles published in print, a brief bio and a contact page.
My biggest regret is that my subscribers to Dispatches will not get notified of new posts here. If you would like to be notified of new blog posts, please comment on any post! I will add you to my contact list and let you know when something new is posted. And as always, if you see something here you like, do not hesitate to share it or send it to friends who you think might enjoy it.
I am extremely grateful for all of you who have supported and encouraged my writing and photography through the years. I hope you enjoy this new archive of what I hope is my best of both of those worlds. So take it for a spin, and don't hesitate to let me know if something isn't working properly. Thank you.