The UCMJ Also Covers Accidents
Eileen and I stayed in a treehouse on the way to Florida and they wanted us all to spend at least a night together there. We lost them along the way and somehow ran into them in the same store where we were both purchasing wine.
The treehouse was a marvel. It was in a tree but looked like your average country apartment on the inside complete with books and bookshelves, a picture window, bottles with candles and furniture. We uncorked the wine poured a few rounds and then Eileen began to speak of her recent Marian pilgrimage all over Europe.
“In obedience to the Church I haven’t been actively pushing the appearances of Mary in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia. But something is going on there. Mary has been appearing to six children and delivering secret messages that are carried back to the Pope. I saw the children in ecstasy and was so startled by it that I had difficulty filming it. The place was too holy.”
“There has been a massive increase in conversions to Catholics among the Croatians. Unfortunately, the communist authorities have misinterpreted it as a political movement and tried to suppress it. They’ve arrested priests and nuns and razed the church where the appearances have taken place.”
“All that has happened is that the people’s fever has increased. The children told the authorities that they could do what they want with them because Mary was with them. Thousands of people from all over the area, and that includes most of the young people in the area, gather for hours and pray the rosary together. Could you imagine getting teenagers in the West to do that? But here are all these people in this supposedly godless communist state of Yugoslavia praying for hours each day.”
“Brian, we smuggled video equipment in and went through the Catholic underground to locate the village. We spoke French to the priests who were dressed as truck delivers who met us and delivered us from village to village. It was terrifying.”
“When we were behind the six trying to film their faces as Mary spoke to them, we couldn’t film it the first few times. We were so stunned by their rapture that it was contagious and we dropped the film equipment.”
Her voice grew soft and I poured everyone another round of wine.
“Mary said that we are to stop trying to convert the Muslims and people of other faiths and concentrate on the Catholics. She says that so many Catholics have fallen from the faith and are in grave danger of losing their souls to Satan.”
“She prays that we return to her son. She’s also given the children secret messages but they’ve been delivered to the Pope and will not be released until the proper time.”
By this time I had chills running down my spine. It had been over a year since I’d said a rosary, but I knew that Colleen always carried one with her.
“Eileen, Colleen and Beth ... do you think we could say a rosary right now? It’s been a long time but I think I still remember how.”
“In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Beth began and we recited the Glorious Mysteries.
Here I was in a tree house somewhere in a remote corner of Georgia saying a rosary with three beautiful women. Who would believe it back in Philadelphia?
Their voices so soft against the silence of the dark night were like a choir of angels. Colleen reached over and took my hand. Her hand was warm and strong. She smiled at me and rubbed her forehead against my shoulder. We got to the “Hail Holy Queen” and the “Let us Pray” and they actually knew them by heart.
It was stunning.
At the end of the rosary I offered up a prayer of thanksgiving for these three angels who’d recently saved me from the dark clutches of a cult. They seemed so sweet and vulnerable and feminine--hardly the media picture of deprogrammers. We all kissed good-night and I know there were hosts of angels hovering above us in the Georgia forest that night.
We awoke to a fresh breakfast of coffee, scrambled eggs toast, jam bacon and grits the director of the youth hostel had prepared for us. With a few of them we got into the subject of the “New Age” movement, and one of them, a college student said that a friend of his in his fraternity had disappeared into a cult a year ago and had come back changed, but wouldn’t talk about it.
Eileen went on a role about the entire “New Age” movement with him. Later I asked him what he thought of it all and he said that he’d nut us down in his journal as religious fanatics.
So it goes.
We drove the two cars out to get gas. Next door was a liquor store and Eileen grabbed an old wino and asked that he take our picture. They guy somehow located the button and took the picture. Colleen and I said good-bye to them with hugs and they were back on their way to Philadelphia via I-95. Colleen decided to ride back with me to Eglin Air Force Base and fly out of the Pensacola airport tomorrow.
That was not to be however.
From the time we’d met I’d insisted that she wear her seatbelt when we drove around together. Just for spite there were times when she refused to wear it. When the Dodge Ram truck came crashing across the rail crossing hoping to beat a train and went straight head on into
an hour later Tim’s LTD was one of those times. I can remember the conversation preceding that accident as clearly as if she were next to me right now saying it.
“Brian it was so special saying that rosary with you last might. I don’t know how I was so lucky to meet you. Very few guys would understand that.”
She leaned over and kissed my cheek.
“This seatbelt’s in the way.”
She leaned her head across and laid her head in my lap.
“Colleen...I don’t know if I can ever thank you for getting me away from them. My family thinks the world of you for that. I do too. Why don’t you save them all a lot of speculation and agree to marry me.”
I took one hand from the steering wheel and began to stoke her hair. “Oh. once you knew me you’d rescind the offer. I’m harsh and difficult and whiny and I have skinny legs. And once I fall I’m hard to get rid of. You’ll rue the day you ever met me Brian Richard O’Brien.”
“I already 1Iio but that doesn’t matter. We could both do each other a bunch of good. I don’t know how people decide to get married but I suspect it’s when they feel toward each other
the way we do. What have you got to lose?”
“Brian, we still don’t really know each other. I know that I Love you and care for you and want only the best for you. The best for you may not be me. Where are we anyway?”
As she picked up her head to look a train horn blared loudly. It was deafening. The lazy Georgia afternoon sun was blinding and intense but I could make out some form coming toward us trying to beat out the train.
Rather than veer it went right on toward us as if the driver was powerless to prevent what was about to ha0pen. Georgia State Police told me the next day it was a Dodge Ram truck.
“COLLEEN...COLLEEN...DUCK YOUR HEAD...KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN...”
I tried to push her head back down but she thought that I was only joking as I had sometimes in the past. She began to laugh and forced her head around my hand.
When I realized what s ne was doing and how close the truck was I tried to lean over buy my shoulder harness held me in place.
By now she saw above the dashboard and realized I wasn’t joking. Before she could react the truck slammed us with a loud BAAAAMMMMM and she went crashing through the front windshield screaming “MOTHER OF GOD PROTECT US...:”
I felt my whole body jolt and my shoulder slam the side of the car.
My knees crashed into the steering wheel but the harness did its job and I didn’t wound any vital organs. Before my eyes played the nightmare of watching the woman I loved go straight through the windshield over the hood of Tim’s car over the hood of the Dodge Ram and through the windshield of the truck.
I was able to unharness myself and hobbled from the car. The driver of the truck had not been wearing a seat belt and was sitting with Veronica in his lap.
As I opened the door I saw that she was bent in a very unnatural position and bleeding profusely from all over her body from the hundreds of Church Glorious and Victorious she’d sustained from the broken windshields. I reached behind her and cradled her in my arms. She was limp. She was also quickly loosing large amounts of blood and she didn’t have long to go.
“YOU’RE NOT GOING TO DIE COLLEEN!!!
“YOU’RE NOT GOING TO DIE!!: DEAR GOD LET HER LIVE!!! LET HER LIVE AND LET ME DIE: : :
“SHE”S SO INNOCENT AND GOOD:!: LET ME DIE INSTEAD!!! OH GOD FORGIVE ME FOR MY SINS AND FORGIVE HER FOR HER FEW SINS! ! ! I”VE BEEN STUPID DEAR GOD BUT I’LL BE GOOD NOW! ! :
“JUST LET HER LIVE DEAR GOD!!! JUST LET HER LIVE:!!”
Her warm blood formed’ pools all over the cab of the truck and covered me everywhere. “COLLEEN!!! PLEASE SAY SOMETHING IF YOU CAN HEAR ME!!:”
Somehow she mustered enough strength to pinch my finger. At least she was still alive. But if the ambulance didn’t get here within minutes she didn’t have a chance...not with the blood she was losing.
I began sobbing hysterically suddenly aware of all the awful things I’d said and done to her. since I’d known her.
Catholic guilt was cruising through my veins.
“COLLEEN I’M SORRY FOR ALL THE WAYS I’VE HURT YOU ... ”
I felt her stir.
She was trying to say something.
I leaned closer.
“...hii...hiimmm ... ” she whispered as I cradled her closer to me.
What did she mean?
She nodded her head in the direction of the other driver. “...sseeee...how...he’s doing Brian. I’m going to...to...meet God now...” and she went cold. I felt for a pulse and got nothing.
I began crying out again.
“OH GOD NO!!!”
I looked over at the truck driver as she’d asked and he was stirring. Probably a few broken bones and he’d be like new in a few weeks. But the blood of Colleen was on him forever.
I leaned over him and went into a rage.
“YOU DUMB BASTARD!!! WHO GAVE YOU PERMISSION TO GO KILLING YOUNG WOMEN YOU BULL NECKED BASTARD!!!
I began to strike him in the chest with my fists when I felt several powerful arms restraining me.
The State Police and several ambulances had arrived. They shot me up with something and the next day I awoke groggy in a hospital bed. There was a doctor and a few nurses looking at me rather intensely. My commanding officer was also in the room.
“You know my question Doc. How is she?”
“She’s alive at least. Too early to say if she’ll live or not. She’s in a coma. These things can last for some time. Some come in and some go out. Only time will tell.”
“Do you want to contact the family or shall we?” He gave it all to me in that non-emotional, sterile voice doctors can be so practiced at when the time calls for it.
“Let me contact her family. It’s my fault and I might as well be the one who tells her family what happened.”
Why is my commanding officer here? He’s supposed to be deployed to Korea right now.”
My CO looked at me sternly.
“It seems there are some legal complications Lieutenant!. First of all, you overstayed your leave and were AWOL at the time of the accident. Secondly you were driving a car that was not owned by you and we’ve yet to locate the owner. Even if the woman lives it seems that you will face a Military Evaluation Board that will determine your fitness for duty.
Judging by the facts it doesn’t look good. It’s better that you know now so that you can prepare your case. As soon as you’re better they will probably hold the board. Your girlfriend is in intensive care but you may visit her.”
My Commanding Officer stepped up the bedside.
“Things don’t look good Lieutenant.”
It was Lieutenant now. Before it had been Brian. I was quickly learning how the institution dealt with what it considered miscreants.
“I’ll stop back after you’ve had time to recuperate and we’ll discuss details or the formal inquiry. Good luck, son. I hope your girlfriend gets well soon.”
“Doctor...is there any chance I can see Colleen Now?”
He looked at me sadly.
“It will be a day or so before she’s allowed visitors. You’re not all that well yourself young man. You sustained several multiple fractures in the shoulder- and arm that may require more than just that brace your now wearing.
You also took a nasty bang on the head and complications take time to show from that. I’m afraid the only thing you’re allowed to do at this time is notify her family. Insurance
requirements necessitate that I stay he~ with you while you
do so.” The good doctor took a chair and I dialed Colleen’s.
“Hello? Mrs. O’Donnell?”
“This is she.”
“This is Brian...”
“Brian...where is Colleen? She was supposed to be home today and we’re a little bit worried. You two can be so irresponsible sometimes. Why didn’t she call about her plans. Is she on the plane now and needs a ride from the airport.”
Her voice was so worried at just that slight delay that I hesitated to tell her the real news. I took a deep breath and began.
“Mrs. O’Donnell, I’m afraid it’s more complicated than that. As we were sitting at a railroad crossing on the way home an oncoming truck didn’t see us behind the train and slammed into us. We both...”
She wasn’t going to wait.
“My Colleen?! I knew something was wrong when she didn’t call. That’s just not like her. She’s always been so good about calling. How is she, Brian. You can tell me.” Her voice was terse.
“She’s...she’s...oh, man I don’t know how to say it except to say this...she’s in a coma...”
She shrieked at the other end.
“JESUS MARY AND JOSEPH GIVE ME STRENGTH!!!
“Dear God, keep her alive! I knew this trio was too hastily planned when she first told me. Now it’s come to this! Where’s Luke right now?”
“Brian ... you stay where you are, which I trust is by her bedside like a decent young man. I’ll get the doctor and one of the boys and we’ll take a flight down. Where’s my rosary? You pray like you’ve never prayed before that she lives, do you hear me?”
Her voice was suddenly strong and forceful.”
“I have been, Mrs. O’Donnell. I don’t want her to die. I love her too. Not as much as you do because you’re her mother and you’ve known her longer but I love her. I’ll do whatever I can.”
“I know you do Brian. I’m just upset right now. Dear God where are my keys. I’ve got to make a number of calls right now and I’ll see you as soon as I can get down there. Where are you?”
I looked over at the doctor.
“I’m not even sure. There’s a doctor right here who’s caring for the both of us and he needs some insurance information. I’ll put him on.”
“God bless you, Brian. I know it wasn’t your fault.”
Philadelphia is a tribal city and the O’Donnell’s are one of those massive Irish Catholic clans that make it thrive. A family get together of less than 300 is considered a small gathering. Like the black, Jewish, Ukrainian, Italian, Greek, and other and other tribes that make up the city when one of its own is struck down there is a gathering of the tribe and a course of action is decided upon.
Since the Duke is the patriarch of this clan and it was his daughter that was struck down. he and the Duchess were dispatched immediately, along with a contingent of O’Donnell’s and Dorsey’s, Murphy’s and O’Brien’s, so that there would be a 24-hour vigil held around the bedside for Colleen.
In addition, because it was the belief among the Philadelphia Catholic community that the deep south was still missionary territory to which they contributed on various Sunday’s for the conversion of souls, they brought along their own Priest so that Colleen have the Last Rites properly.
Colleen’s room became a flower store with flowers appearing by the hour from local florists. The word had definitely gone out among~ the various tribal chief tans in the Philadelphia Archdiocese that Colleen was in danger of dying in a pagan locale, because along with the flowers were rosaries, scapulars, prayer cards, holy cards and mass cards.
Those back in Rome on the Delaware were going to make sure that one of their own did not lack for the faith’s accouterments in missionary territory. No doubt entire Solidarity and Holy Name Societies at this very moment were sewing together talismans with Saint’s relics and offering up novena’s at Shrines to Our Holy Lady across Catholic Philadelphia.
I borrowed one of the rosaries that arrived for Colleen and spent part of each day praying in the hospital chapel. Like most hospital chapels, it was largely protestant in design--no Stations of the Cross; no statues of Our Lady and the saints and no sacristy for the Eucharist.
Still, it was quiet and private and I could plead my case before God.
Before each rosary I would begin with something like, “God the Father God the Son and God the Holy Spirit...I know I’m an unworthy slob who’s disobeyed you more times than can be counted. I’ve broken your commandments and your sacred word every day of my life in one way or another.
But Colleen is another story. She’s lived her life devoted to you and her family and she doesn’t deserve to die. Not now, anyway. I know I’m being selfish because I love her and want to marry her but I can’t help it.
She’d make such a beautiful mother and you know how rare women who want to have large families are these days. Remember when she said at dinner at her house that she wanted to have at least eight kids and I almost choked on my potatoes?
Well, you let her live, and I’ll have those eight kids and I’ll love the like crazy. You let her live and I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll go to daily mass and live like a good Catholic which haven’t done for some time and I’ll learn how to love like you wanted us to. Just don’t let her die.”
The first time I said that prayer I cried.
Every time after as well.
Somehow it takes a death or a near death before we realize how much those we love mean to us.
You never miss them half as much as when they’re not there anymore. Even though Colleen was not dead, the times when I went to sit by her bedside reminded me of how much I loved her. But because she was in a coma all I could do was stroke her hand.
The doctor said that anything else might cause cardiac arrest and she’d be gone. So I sat...and waited...and waited...and waited...along with her mother and father two of her brothers and one of her sisters, eight of her cousins and several of her friends.
Father Stein and the house for sexually and physically abused children in New York where she’d worked for several years even sent a framed painting one of the boys did of her while she was there.
The tension of sitting by her bedside in silence was infernal.
We’d glance up and look at each other and whispered how she looked better more as ways of reassuring our own fears than out of any change in her condition. The computer screens they had monitoring her progress kept showing the same jagged lines over and over. The nurses and doctors arrived and departed like clockwork taking her vital signs changing her bedpan, washing her and changing her intravenous tubes.
She was a non responsive like that for eleven days. For that entire time my impending ordeal before the Military Evaluation Board meant nothing to me. No punishment they could meet out could come near to what I was now enduring.
Her family took it all pretty well. Her mother would go into crying jags occasionally, and I saw the father wipe a few tears away but other than that they sat as silently as I did--waiting and praying. Father O’Shea said the Last Rites over her when it looked at one point as if she were about to die but she rallied and kept blinking on the screen.
I knew Colleen and I also knew that she was fighting as hard as she could to stay alive, it only to explain to her mother that it wasn’t my fault it all happened.
Finally on the twelfth day while the nurses were changing her IV tubes she sat bolt upright in bed and said “Brian I’m starved! Let’s pull over somewhere nice and eat. They must have a nice restaurant somewhere in this god forsaken town. Brian are you listening to me.”
I tried to grab her to hug her but the head nurse stood in my way. Her mother embraced her father and began crying hysterically.
“St. Jude. I’ll always be grateful to you for this. I’ll make it up to you. I promise.”
All of the O’Donnell’s were embracing each other and kissing.
Even the priest got hugged.
She came too as if nothing happened; she had no recollection of the accident and was amazed that her parent’s family and friends had taken the time to fly down over such a “minor” accident.
The doctor explained that often when ne only are in a coma they come out completely undamaged or they die. The mind was still a great mystery to them and he was at a loss to explain how she recovered so completely_
“You had better get back to Mr. Hennessey. Who’s going to keep the real estate business afloat on the Main Line if you don’t? And Dad, half of Ardmore Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore have probably become ill without you there to keep them healthy. You get back to St. Mathais1Parish. I’ll be fine.”
“Oh, God Colleen you gave us a fright.”
Her mother squeezed her hands together nervously clutching her handkerchief and Oblate rosaries.
“Your father’s been practicing medicine for thirty-two years and he’s never been so frightened by a case. You get better and get back to us as soon as you can. I’ll have your room all ready for you when you get back. We’ll all be praying for you.”
No doubt that was true. Several parishes a number of parochial schools and a few catholic high schools and colleges Philadelphia Archdiocese had her special intention offered un at daily mass.
“We’ll be waiting for you. Poteet.”
Her father leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. He let a tear go and she began to comfort him.
“OH Daddy! I’ll be alright. You get back there and take care of the real sick patients not people like me who are just looking for an extensive vacation.”
One by one her family friends relatives and sundry others passed by and kissed her good-bye. The last was the priest who blessed the entire assemblage.
“As for you, Ace, the Ruskies have probably penetrated every defense field we have out there without you up there keeping them out. You are to get back to work immediately if not sooner. I’ll be fine.”
She stared at me with that fierce determination she could muster at times like this that so disguised her real fears. Her chin was thrust out and her hands were clenched in fists. “Now you get back to work or I’ll beat you with a wet noodle.”
“Colleen you don’t know what it was like. We were so afraid we were going to lose you. You were in a comma for Christ’s sake! That’s one degree above death.”
“Well I’m fine now and you can get back to work. How is that AWAC even staying in the air without you. You stay here any longer and they’ll have the shore patrol or whatever out here because you’ll be AWOL.”
“I was AWOL the day we had the accident.”
“Yeah. I have to face a Military Evaluation Board next week. They may kick me out of the Air Force.”
“Why? But you love it so much and worked so hard to get your commission! They wouldn’t just get rid of you like that would they?”
I could tell by the innocence of the way the asked that that she didn’t understand the machinations of the Big Blue Machine when it was disobeyed.
As my legal counsel had said when he’d stopped by the day before
“You’re making two mistakes Lieutenant. You expect the Air Force to make a personal decision and it’s an impersonal organization. Second you expect it to make a moral decision and it’s an amoral organization. Second Lieutenants are a dime a dozen these days and you’ll probably have to go. All I can do is present you the best I can before the Board.”
“The reality is that I may be separated. I’m not haw about it at all but that’s what looks likely.”
“You let me talk to them. I’ll give them a piece of my mind: Just who do they think they are that they can just get rid of you like you were some...some...obsolete weapons system. You’re an officer Brian. They’re not going to separate you over this incident. You have a commission.”
“The commission means that I’m supposed to be even more responsible than the enlisted men. There are guys serving 25 years in Leavenworth for the possession of a nickel bag of grass. It’s the military. Colleen.
The Universal Code of Military Justice is much more strict than civilian law. If they can’t catch you on anything they even have the infamous Article 137, “Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and a Gentleman.” That can be anything your commanding officer decides it is. I have the option of resigning my commission and walking away with a dishonorable discharge.”
“You won’t just walk like that I know. You look so good in your uniform. If you could just get before them and explain they won’t separate you. You’ll see.”
“I’ll do my best. At first I wasn’t going to fight it because my lawyer informed me that they have a pretty airtight case against me. Then the Irish in me just wouldn’t go out without a fight. I don’t mind them tossing me out. I just don’t want to leave like a dog with his tail between his legs. I want to go out with a little dignity.” I took her hand and touched her cheek. She sat un and stared right into my eyes.
“They won’t get rid of you Brian! They won’t! You’re ten times better than half of the officers you’ve introduced me to and that includes all those big brass stuffed shirts! Why would they get rid of someone like you after they just invested so much money to train you?”
“Because in their eyes I disobeyed them. I was not where I was supposed to be which was on base and worse than that I went and had an accident with a civilian in a car I didn’t own. They’ve located Timmy and he couldn’t have been nicer about it.”
“He told them he gave me permission to drive the car which he didn’t and that he won’t press charges. Instead he said that he’d like to speak as a character witness at my trial. God what good people they are from the heartland! He’s a gem.”
“You’ll beat them Brian I know you will. They’re a bunch of old fuddy duddies who can’t engage in romance anymore so they think nobody should be allowed to.”
“Sneaking of which ... I wrote you a poem. Would you like to hear it?