BANANA CALLS "BINGO"--HEADIN' HOME
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 02 October 2009
This afternoon at 1400 in Warren, Michigan, a great Marine and friend--Colonel James R. Braden, USMC--casually know as "Jim" or by his call sign, "Banana"--wraps up a distinguished twenty-eight year career in the United States Marine Corps.
Before the day is done, he too--like all who have retired before him--will reflectively ask, "This ride's over? Already? Where the hell did twenty-eight years go?" Hard times will fade away. But the good times--oh sweet memories--will linger for life.
Formally recognizing nearly three decades of hard work, more personal and family sacrifices than you can possibly imagine much less count, and a lifetime spent defending America--in peace and war--is only proper. Jim will get a hero's send off--one that will be a definitive tribute and memory to end his chosen profession. To say, "Thank You" on behalf of a grateful nation is something the Corps, and the other branches of the military, gets right.
Major General Doug Stone, USMC, a distinguished Marine in his own right, who commanded the Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command/Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California, a few years back (Jim was his Chief of Staff) and who saw extensive duty in Iraq, will, on behalf of the President and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, lead the ensemble of distinguished guests--family and friends--to fittingly thank Jim, and his family, for their service.
In contrast, a good friend from long ago recently retired, also with twenty-eight years of service, from the commercial airline industry. She received a parting generic "Thank You for your service" letter in the mail signed by a supervisor she did not know. And, if I recall correctly, there may have been one or two other impersonal tokens of recognition and appreciation. She was not complaining. But for me, incredible--it turned my stomach to hear of that "send off." It still troubles me and simply boggles my mind that a company, less than one-sixth the size of the U. S. Marine Corps, does not extend a more personal touch recognizing an employee for nearly three decades of service.
Certainly there is a difference between military service and commercial flying. However, little does the average air traveler appreciate the emergencies and dangers airline crews are trained to handle and routinely face. Those that immediately come to mind include unruly passengers, passenger life-threatening illnesses, aircraft airworthiness or lack thereof and, God forbid, crash landings and crashes, hijackings, and, as we learned eight years ago, transition from air transport to cruise missile. As is the case with military service, not just anyone is fit to serve in the commercial airline industry. I understand business. But I also understand people and something is afoul when a company "forgets" those who made their business possible. No matter how you slice and dice it---it's wrong. One word comes to mind: Leadership.
As for Jim's ceremony, had timing been a bit better, I'd be in Michigan today--to bear witness to two of the three things Marines do exceptionally well--in fact, better than anyone: conduct a ceremony and party; the other is fight. And Jim knows how to fight--and has proven it more than once. More on that in a moment. But, despite my best efforts to work around the hectic Navy duties of a busy Sailor (my wife), reshuffle family responsibilities and sundry promised commitments, and find accommodating flights, my presence today was not meant to be. Regrettable. Again, my apologies to you Jim.
So, the next best thing I can think to do is dedicate this week's Commentary to Jim's selfless service to Corps and Country. It's the least I can do. So, Jim, my "gift" to you--my pleasure.
America, meet Colonel Jim "Banana" Braden, USMC...
Jim comes from a Marine family. His Dad is a Marine--in fact, a retired Colonel. Jim's uncle is a Marine and flew in Vietnam. His brother is a Marine--and, ironically, we served together in 6th Marine Regiment--though in different battalions--as lieutenants, though we did not know each other (but we have mutual friends). As I have pointed out in numerous Commentaries--it's a small Corps; paths cross...over and over and over. And when those paths do cross there is always more than a few dozen friends you have in common. Yep, it's a small Corps.
Jim's beginning in the Corps was exactly the same as that faced head-on and conquered by all Marine officers--for generations. The first hurdle and it's a big one--Officer Candidates School. The soul-searching, gut-check ordeal that, contrary to popular belief, is not a finishing school or "training program" per se. Unlike Marine Corps recruit training where basic Marines are trained, OCS "screens and evaluates" a candidate's potential for the sobering responsibility of leading Marines--in combat. That is, seasoned Marines--enlisted and officers--"screen and evaluate" candidates put under constant and intense physical and mental stress. It is the only way--the time-tested one--to determine who has the mettle to lead Marines. As you might suspect, attrition is high. Not everyone is cut out to lead Marines. Only "The Few."
Once commissioned as one of "the Few," Jim was off to The Basic School--where all Marine lieutenants are trained (where camaraderie begins to set like rebar reinforced concrete). And, finally, Military Occupational Specialty school--for Jim, Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, to tackle flight school and earn designation as a "Naval Aviator"--to sport "Wings of Gold" on his chest. He pinned on wings in September 1983.
Somewhere along the line--I am not sure if in flight school or in the Operating Forces--Jim was tagged with the call sign "Banana." Call signs are a long-standing tradition in military aviation and behind each is usually some sort of colorful, funny story (aviator did something stupid) or there is an obvious fit with their name. Some are just "no-brainers"--e.g. First Lieutenant Whizz--call sign, "Cheese." Others require patience and observation--but the fitting one eventually comes along.
The rules for awarding call signs are simple: 1) they are assigned by your "buddies;" 2) you probably will not like it; 3) moan and complain and you'll get a new one you'll like even less!
Two of my brothers are Naval Aviators---"Duke" (Ken) flew jets and "Pee Wee" (Pete) flew helicopters--I am somewhat familiar with their culture(s) and privy to some hilarious call sign stories. Here are some of the more entertaining ones--guys my brother, "Duke"--who has met "Banana"--flew with and shared for this Commentary.
"Slurpee" (slurped a spilled drink off the floor one night on liberty); "Mom" (Short for "Minister of Misery"--was always depressed and complaining); "Puddles" (made a comment over the base radio, while waiting for refueling in the hot pits, that he was a “Puddle” in the cockpit--Big Mistake!); "Balls" (last name Cotton--his kids are "Q-tips"); "Chunks" (puked on the skipper after drinking on liberty); "Snooze" (awaiting fuel on a cross-country, fell asleep in the intake of an A-7); "Divot" (ran off the runway into the mud one rainy evening), "Thumper" (ran his jet into a Plane Captain at the fuel pits one night), "Toto" (this was a tough one, months passed and we couldn’t figure out what to do with this guy--he was a big, muscular football player, sharp as a tack--I finally asked him where he was from and it was Kansas, thus we dubbed him "Toto." Seemed to fit as it was the opposite of being big), "Otis" (short for "Off Target Is Standard"--couldn’t bomb worth a crap). There are countless others.
For example, "Wheels" (made a gear-up landing attempt in the training command); "Struts" (landed so hard in the A-4 that he literally drove the wheel struts through the wings); "Chooch" short for "Choo Choo" (last name was Lionel--like the train); "Brow" ( had Wooly Mammoth eyebrows); Lady (my 2nd cruise roommate--last name was Dye); and finally...
and respectfully in honor of my friend, "Spike"--Captain Mike Speicher, U.S. Navy--KIA Desert Storm--he is finally home; at rest.
The funny thing is that most of the aviators didn’t know the real first names of anyone. It was always interesting and funny introducing your buds to someone outside the ready room such as wives, parents, or just non-military friends, particularly when you would say, “Mom/Dad, this is…er….'Hey, Slut, what's your first name?'”
"Great memories for me, Andy. Thanks for asking me to contribute. My pleasure. Congrats, 'Banana!'"
Okay, "Banana," you're on the dot to share your call sign story at the retirement ceremony. Clean it up if you have to. And I want to hear it too!
Jim flew the UH-1 commonly known as the "Huey"--a "skids" (no wheels) multipurpose assault support helicopter. To put things in perspective, the Huey came into service in the Corps in 1963--when Jim was six years old. Today the Corps fields the UH-1Y "Super Huey;" a four-bladed (vice two) beast with extra power, speed, payload, and lift capabilities. Simply, a good helicopter getting better with age to do one thing--support Marines in combat.
Wartime or not, military aviation--fixed or rotary wing--is a dangerous business. Accidents happen. Aviators die. In helicopters, so do crewmen and Marines. Jim excelled in training and in combat.
In June 1990 then Captain Jim Braden reported to 1st Air and Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (1st ANGLICO) where he was assigned as a Team Leader, Supporting Arms Liaison Team (SALT). In August 1990 1st ANGLICO deployed to Saudi Arabia to support Operation DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM. During DESERT STORM Jim led his SALT in combat operations on the Saudi/Kuwait border, in the Battle of Khafji, and during the Ground War to include the liberation of Kuwait City.
Not yet done with war, almost exactly twelve years later, in May 2002 then Lieutenant Colonel Jim Braden assumed command of helicopter squadron HMLA-169 Vipers and led the squadron in combat during Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM.
Not to embarrass Jim but to make it clear to all readers--especially those not familiar with military decorations-- among Jim's many awards are the following for leadership excellence in combat: Distinguished Flying Cross with “V”; Air Medal with “V” and Strike Flight with numeral 7; the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with “V”; the Battle Medal from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; and the Combat Action Ribbon. The "V" represents "Valor" and is a combat distinguishing device. The Combat Action Ribbon is one Marines covet. It is a personal (not unit) award. It simply means you have been in a gunfight with the enemy--delivering and taking fire fired in anger. The defense rests. Jim knows something about fighting.
In short, "Banana" is a warrior--a real-life gunfighter. The "junk" on his chest proves it. Out of uniform, like most humble warriors, you'd never know--he'd not bring it up. It's who Marines are and what Marines do. Marines do not feel the need to prove anything to anyone. Bottom line: "I would want Jim with me in a firefight or a bar fight." There is nothing more honorable to say about a fellow Marine. Nothing.
In June 2004, Jim, newly promoted to Colonel, reported to the Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command/Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California, for duty as "Chief of Staff." This was the first time I met Jim Braden. As second-in-command and in support of training for combat operations in the Long War (Global War On Terror), Jim oversaw the development of Exercise Mojave Viper--a pre-deployment training program for all Marine units ordered to Iraq (and Afghanistan), the build-up of multiple urban training ranges--ground and air--aboard the Combat Center, and worked to more closely integrate geographically dispersed ground and air combat training capabilities.
Jim and I soon became and remain close friends. One of the highest compliments ever paid to me came from Jim. For several weeks shortly before I retired I had the unpleasant task of conducting a sensitive investigation. To minimize the risk of a leak, only the Commanding General and one other officer on the staff was privy to my work. Though not party to any wrongdoing, for sundry reasons, Jim was not in the loop.
Once the investigation was complete, the general brought Jim up to date. Meeting with Jim, later in the day, the two of us sat in his office behind closed doors to review the investigative details. I well remember his words before we turned our attention to business. He said, "Andy, I have learned something incredibly valuable today. I will never sit at a poker table with you or the general. I had no clue what was going on and the three of us interface(d) every day." What a nice compliment--and I don't play poker; at least not at the card table. Jim thinks I'd be pretty good at it. Maybe. But, no thanks. I'll take the compliment and keep my money zipped up in my pocket.
After leaving Twentynine Palms, Jim assumed Program Manager responsibilities for the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office at the Detroit Arsenal, Warren, Michigan--a position he has held since August of 2007. His duties involved developing, acquiring, fielding, and sustaining ground robotics for the Army and Marine Corps. In short, he continued to make important contributions to the fight. His duties took him back to the battlefield--several times.
Colonel Jim Braden has done his duty--for Corps and Country. By any standard of measuring a successful career, he had a rich and rewarding one; to include excelling in what he was trained to do--lead Marines and fly helicopters in combat. And in retrospect, Jim's service is yet further proof, the OCS "screen and evaluate" process works. The Corps, and our country, got a good one when Candidate Braden was commissioned a Marine second lieutenant.
Jim, his wife, and four children--light-heartedly known as the "Six Bananas"--are moving on to new adventures--with so much to look forward to. The Braden family, and it was indeed a family effort, has done their part defending our country and have "earned" a different, if not less dangerous, style and pace of life.
So, as "Banana" peels off his flight suit one last time and slips into Corps history, America, let's rise and extend a hearty and thunderous round of applause to Jim and his family--American patriots--for dedicated and admirable service to Corps and Country! Take a bow, "Bananas!"
"I am running out of space and I know you are low on "fuel," pal--'BINGO' for home."
To the readership--whether you know Jim or not, please take a moment or two and post a comment--at least a "Thanks"--to Jim and his family for their selfless service to Corps and Country. If uncomfortable leaving your name that is fine--"Anonymous" will do. If military, please include rank, branch, and years of service. Let's send one of America's warriors home the right way! I know Jim and his family will appreciate it. So will I. Thank you.
And, while you're at it, how about a "Thanks" to our retiring airline employee--call sign: "Wistly"--for a demanding career that likewise merits recognition and our appreciation.
Note: Ken "Duke" Weddington, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy Fighter/Attack pilot extraordinaire--AV-8A Harriers, A-7 Corsairs, and F/A-18 Hornets--contributed to this Commentary. "Thanks, 'Duke.' Thanks for the laughs. Semper Fidelis, brother. What say we grab Dad and go wet a line for trout? It's time to 'fly'!"