Hank sits at a round table, alone, in a corner, in his red nylon jacket, blue baseball cap that has “God Answers Prayers” embroidered on the back, glasses halfway down his nose, his eyes over the top, taking it all in, not saying a word.
Hank killed people legally. “No one could hide from me,” he says. He’s the only Cobra pilot in Iraq to take out a Mig. The whole thing lasted twenty seconds. The Mig made a pass at him with missiles, but he deployed his foil and evaded it. Fighters can make a turn really fast but they cover four miles in the process. He hit the Mig when it was coming out of its turn, two rounds in the nose, blew him to kingdom come. The pilot never ejected.
He’s got 1167 confirmed kills, those witnessed by someone else. He says you can multiply that by six or seven to get an idea of the number of people he’s killed. “I took my oath seriously, to preserve and protect from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I planned to spend my career in the military, fighting for my country. The military wanted pilots who were remorseless, pilots who would do what they were supposed to and not think about it. I was good at it.”
He and two other Cobras were sent out to rescue 130 Marines who were pinned down in a crossfire and running out of ammunition. One Cobra had mechanical problems (he says the pilot was chicken), one got shot up and had to return to base. They told him to come back. He ignored the order, called the Marines, told them to get in their holes, “because I was coming in lit up and everything above ground was going to get killed.” He made two passes, used all his ammo. Took a round in his hip, one in his shoulder, his gunner was killed. He managed to get back and land his crippled ship. They opened up his cockpit and jabbed him with morphine. He spent 17 months in the hospital.
Hank has lived in the halfway house since last July, doesn’t know when he’s going to leave, or if. He grew up in Anderson, was a runner. No one beat him. He was baptized when he was eight, and, like everything else, took it seriously. Don’t be wishy-washy about life, he says. If you commit to something, do it.
He went to an air show when he was a kid, decided he wanted to be a pilot. He had his private pilot’s license before he could drive. He joined the army to fly. He was on the ground crew at first, then on the flight crew, then became a pilot. The Cobra he flew was one that had been cobbled together: biggest engine they had, missiles, cannons, fifty caliber belt gun on a swivel. When he turned it on he’d ventilate every square foot of an area the size of a football field.
He was in the soccer stadium in Bosnia, trying to keep 35,000 people alive. He was the guest of Saddam Hussein’s kids while he taught the Iraqis how to fight with Cobras that we supplied in their war with Iran. He was on a mission to kill Gaddafi when Gaddafi allegedly had hit squads out trying to kill President Reagan. Gaddafi and his maid always went to the pool house to play hide the snake at a certain time of the day. They took out the pool house. Missed Gaddafi by twenty minutes.
He doesn’t take any benefits from anyone, no VA, no welfare, so SSI. He sees people who do as part of the problem. He refuses to be part of the problem. He gets odd jobs, survives. He doesn’t get into the game that all the other guys play, bumming cigarettes from each other. “I want to be different. I want to be separate. I gave up a $500 million dollar inheritance.”
My dad taught us to drink Jack Daniels when we were babies. I grew up preparing to be an alcoholic.” Five or six years ago, his doctor told him he was going to die from liver cancer unless he underwent treatment and changed his life. He went from 165 to 117 pounds in a month. He died several times. His wife, at that time, told him to let it go. He didn’t. “I don’t quit. I don’t stop. I keep going. None of the kids want to work with me. They can’t keep up. I’m not impressive physically. I weigh 135 now. It’s all there is. But they don’t grab a hold of me; want to wrestle me to the ground.” He walks up to twenty miles a day, witnesses to people along the way. “I walk because the bullet nicked my sciatic nerve and my leg wants to quit.”
God has talked to Hank. The time is over for proselytizing. It’s the time for those who believe to have their reward. He’s talked to lots of people over the years, tried to save them. Now they’re on their own.
Bill Siemer grew up on a farm in Lassen County, played basketball at Shasta JC, went to Vietnam, became a newspaper reporter and then a lawyer and now considers himself a champion of the story that needs to be told. He lives on the bank of the river and takes pictures.