This story begins with a young Hospital Man by the name of Gary Norman Young. Gary was attached for duty with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 364 (The Purple Foxes), one of the most decorated units in the Vietnam War. Gary was Navy Corpsman volunteer for medical evacuation missions. He knowingly put himself in harm’s way to help save the lives of seriously wounded combat Marines.
He was killed on February 7, 1969 while performing his hallowed life saving duty.
Years later, his daughter realized that her father had never received his combat aircrew wings and she wanted to correct that. She tracked down and contacted the men who served with The Purple Foxes with her father. In 2000, The Purple Foxes held a reunion in San Diego and Stephanie Hanson was invited to be their keynote speaker. During the reunion, Stephanie met the man who survived her father’s fatal crash. She also met the man who pulled his body from the wreckage. She reminded these brave aviators that her father was still awaiting his aircrew insignia. What was needed, however, was proof that Gary Norman Young had flown the required five combat missions before his death.
In October 2002, Stephanie Hanson’s efforts on behalf of her father came to fruition; the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps (Aviation) personally awarded her her father’s Combat Aircrew Wings. She also met the flight surgeon whose duty it was to pronounce her father’s death. He told her that her father’s death was instantaneous —he never suffered in his final moments of life. There was another positive aspect to Stephanie’s efforts: former Marines were able to connect with one another after 33 years.
There is more to the story.
Stephanie Hanson remembered a young helicopter pilot she met as part of her quest to obtain her father’s aircrew wings. The pilot’s name was Jennifer J. Harris, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Class of 1996.
On 7 February 2006, Captain Jennifer J. Harris was a pilot with HMM-364. She was accustomed to flying her Sea Knight (CH-46) helicopter into the battlefield to pick up and evacuate wounded Marines. Many of these missions were performed at night. Her final flight was a daylight mission. She volunteered to transport a much-needed supply of blood to a forward location.
Captain Harris didn’t have to fly that mission. She was at the end of her third combat tour of duty, and Captain Harris was getting ready to rotate back home. But Captain Harris was a Marine and Marines always accept challenges. Marines always run toward the sound of guns —always. Harris argued, “I want to fly one more mission in Iraq … in the daylight.” Captain Harris’ superiors agreed to let her fly.
Her bird was carrying more than blood supplies, however. It was also flying a United States flag in honor of Hospital man Gary Norman Young, United States Navy.
During her final mission, Captain Harris’ helicopter was shot out of the sky by an enemy rocket. Radio communication reflects that Harris maintained her professional demeanor throughout the emergency, but the aircrew was unable to put out the on-board fire, and Captain Harris was unable to prevent the helicopter from crashing into the ground. All six aircrew were killed upon impact … 38 years to the day that Gary Norman Young lost his life as a member of The Purple Foxes.