MEASURE OF A MAN
by Malcolm McConnell
(reprinted from Reader's Digest, October 1990 issue)
Phillips and John
Connors sat in the humid darkness of the beach at Howard Air Force Base on
Phillips noted the size of Connors's pack. He was lugging a combination rifle/grenade launcher, reserve ammunition, medical supplies and a radio. "How much does all that stuff weigh?"
Connors shrugged. "About a hundred pounds, I guess."
Phillips snorted. "You planning to run with that load?"
"Try and catch me."
The two grinned. For a moment they were young
athletes again, ready to compete. They had been together in the
"John," Phillips began, his voice low, "if I -if I get pinned down out there..."
"Yeah. Don't worry, Mike," John said quickly. "I'll cover you."
Joan Connors returned to the family's brick home
"Ma," John had said, "I don't want you and Dad getting all concerned about this." He assured her that daily intravenous medication would prevent the parasite from attacking internal organs, and he promised to send her detailed information.
"Say hello to everybody," he had said. "Give Duke a hug."
Joan smiled at the living-room photo of John grinning over his puppy, Duke. That skinny kid had filled out to 170 pounds of muscle, exquisitely trained for combat.
Every photo of John showed
that permanent grin of his. But there was also a restless intelligence in his
blue eyes. His love of learning had resulted in a four-year scholarship to
Joan recalled evenings when John had returned from an 11-hour shift on his summer construction job. After a quick meal he somehow found energy to run ten miles and cycle another 20.
With all this preparation,
the family had hoped John would do well in the
Joan remembered her own
amazement, at John's
These very qualities sometimes worried his mother. At least, with his medical treatment ending, John would be home for New Year's.
On Monday, December 18, at the U. S. Naval Amphibious Base
On Sunday, President Bush
As McGrath worked at his desk, an athletic young man appeared in the doorway, grinning widely. "Good morning, sir," John Connors said. "It looks like something's going down."
McGrath pushed his chair back. "Exactly what are you doing here?" He knew Connors had completed only half his medical treatment and had to get back to the hospital.
"I figured the team might need me," Connors said simply.
McGrath paused. He thought
No question about it: Connors was one of the team's strongest officers, a leader who brought out excellence in others. Besides, he spoke fluent Spanish. But skipping treatment could be a breach of the mission's security.
Finally, McGrath spoke: "If you can get yourself cleared from the hospital without arousing suspicion, then I can use you. If you can't, I want you at Walter Reed before anyone asks where you are."
Half an hour later, Connors was back, still grinning. "I'm off medical orders, sir." He had told doctors there was a family emergency.
"Lieutenant," said McGrath, "go find your platoon."
The rubber raiding boats were secured together at a rallying
point two miles off Paitilla. The
The men on the boats were somber. They knew Paitilla's runway, taxi strips and grassy margins were devoid of cover. Until they gained control of the airport, they would be badly exposed to enemy fire.
Worse, under the rules of
engagement for this operation - the most stringent ever imposed on
The command radio crackled.
Panamanian forces had unexpectedly attacked
Connors's boat ground ashore on the hard mud by the end of the runway, and his platoon sprawled in the low grass, weapons ready, searching for PDF guards. People were moving under the control tower's dome of yellow light, but the south end of the airport was deserted.
While Connors's Bravo platoon prepared to block the runway with some of the light planes lining the taxi strip, Phillips's Golf platoon dashed toward the open PDF hangar that housed Noriega's Lear Jet.
Suddenly, Phillips heard a voice inside shout: "Ponganse en posicion, Preparense para disparar." ("Take positions. Prepare to fire.")
Just as Phillips yelled a warning, the PDF opened up. The
Panamanians had timed their ambush well, hitting a squad from Golf platoon as
it sprinted from the cover of parked planes. PDF troops blasted away with
AK-47s, raking the
Phillips rushed his men forward, firing at the PDF muzzle flashes. As he approached, he saw the extent of the devastation.
"Heavy wounded!" he shouted into his radio. "Bravo, get up here."
He saw that the gunship could not hit PDF positions without endangering the downed men close to the hangar. Phillips's squad, together with Bravo, would have to gain fire superiority to evacuate the wounded. He spread his men and began shooting. Moments after calling for reinforcements, he heard Connors's squad pounding up. As promised, his friend was there to cover for him.
Connors did not hesitate. Using hand signals, he arrayed his men in a line formation and led them directly toward the PDF. Phillips could see Connors's face. His eyes were focused with absolute determination. His intensity was controlled. He showed no fear.
Bullets struck Connors's web gear and ammunition pouches with sledgehammer force. But he regained his stride and ran toward the enemy, firing as he advanced.
The maneuver worked. By drawing attention away from the wounded, Connors and his squad had given the medics time to move in.
By now the PDF volley intensified. The hangar's cinder-block walls offered the Panamanians solid protection, and their weapons swept the parking apron, throwing up chunks of asphalt.
Lying on the tarmac, Connors saw that they were making little progress against the enemy. He had a grenade launcher, but it was difficult to use from his prone position. It was time to up the ante. Now!
Phillips saw Connors rise to one knee and level his grenade launcher at the hangar. From the rear, Phillips heard the sound of reinforcements. For an instant, the scene seemed to freeze. Then a heavy-caliber automatic weapon blasted. Connors flew backward in the darkness. He'd been hit squarely in the chest.
Phillips ran to his friend
and dragged him out of the line of fire. Other
Behind Phillips, the sounds of combat rose and fell in echoing waves. Reluctantly, he turned away and ran back to the fighting.
Once the perimeter was
secured, Mike Phillips rushed back to the triage point. Torpedoman's Mate
Second Class Ike Rodriguez lay mortally wounded. Nearby, three dead
Two Navy officers and a priests
arrived at the Connors home on Wednesday. There had to be some mistake, Joan
told them. John couldn't be in
After the men left, the Connors family sat together in the kitchen. Slowly, the realization of what their son had done took hold. "That was typical of John," Joe Connors finally said. "He was there when people needed him."
The next day, neither Joe nor Joan could face all the reporters. John Sheehan, John's best friend, offered to talk to them.
Standing on the icy front porch, Sheehan verified to one newspaper reporter that John was an honor student, had studied abroad, spoke several languages. He was considered one of the finest men his town had ever produced. The young woman rapidly jotted notes. Finally, she looked up, puzzled.
"He had overseas
experience, a college degree. He could have found a good job and made a lot of
money...." Her voice trailed off. "I don't understand. Why did he
want to be a
Sheehan was stunned by the question. Clearly, to some of the reporter's generation, money and a prestigious job were the only measures of a life. But to others, like John Connors, they were not the only measures, or even the best ones. How could he convey John Connor's values - honor, loyalty, sacrifice - to this smart reporter? He could only say, "If you have to ask, you'll never know the answer."
Over 1000 people jammed St.
Agnes Church for the funeral of John
The night before, the Connors family had been called by Eduardo Vallarino, the new Panamanian ambassador to the United Nations. He asked to attend John's funeral, as a gesture of respect from the new democracy for which John had fought.
After the psalms and the
homily were read and the color guard carefully removed the flag from the
There is a postscript to
this story. On the cold morning of