Selfless. One simple word. I sat down with Staff Sergeant Eric Rine recently to talk about his second rotation to the war zone in as many years, and the conversation continually returned to the wounded soldiers. “His” wounded soldiers. He talked about them like you would expect a 32-year-old man with 39 Combat Air Evac missions under his belt. As a member of the 122d Fighter Wing based in Fort Wayne, Rine is a “Respiratory Technician” on the Critical Care Air Transport Team. I tried to pry into the quiet, confident, proud life of this Hessen Cassel man, but as you will read further on, we always ended up talking about the wounded soldiers, so let’s start there.
Joey Rodriguez was a familiar face at the base in Kandahar, Afghanistan when Rine and crew picked him up that fateful night. Joey had been at the base the week before when Rine’s “milk run” came to town to pick up one of the men that Joey had saved when their convoy was struck with the now infamous IED (Improvised Explosive Device). Only on this night, the milk run came for Joey, the same song, just a different verse. Joey was the wounded soldier on the litter this night, missing a limb, just like the friend whose life he had saved the week before. But this dreaded mission came with an unusual request. “Hold on for just a second, the Base Commander is on his way.” A moment later, a 2-Star General made his way up the long ladder to enter Rine’s C-17 to give Joey the “Purple Heart” medal and the citation that accompanies this honor. It’s one of the medals that everyone knows about and respects, but no one ever wants to receive. “Can I re-enlist without my leg, Sir?” Joey Rodriguez asks the General. “You get yourself ready to fight again, and I guarantee you, I will do everything in my power to get you re-enlisted,” was the Generals response. That’s a big promise, but it came from a man with the authority to make it happen. “I had the chance to see Joey Rodriguez get his Purple Heart.” Rine stated that it was his highlight for that trip. As our conversation continued, the highlights were all along those same lines. Like the rest of Rine’s stories of the life saving runs from the combat zone to the next stop, Landstuhl, Germany, he always focused on the wounded soldiers.
“Milk run?” I just had to ask. The answer was such that I almost wished I hadn’t. The call to “gear up” came with the regular frequency that only those of us old enough to remember Miles Bitner could understand. Mr. Bitner delivered milk to the residents of the Monroeville area through the 1970s with a regularity that you could set your watch by. So an old term is new again, but the point remains the same. As long as men and women are fighting to preserve the Freedoms and Liberties that we all enjoy, people are going to get wounded, hence the need for “milk runs”.
Thanks to people like Eric Rine those same wounded soldiers have an excellent chance of making it home alive. Here is a guy with every thing to live for, but he volunteers his life, time after time, so that others might live. Which brings us back to “selfless.” Story after story, they all relate to the theme already established. He serves and others benefit. Not to say that wounded soldiers were his only focus. Of course his wife and children at home got plenty of attention via morale phone calls and e-mails. His regular Med Evac runs took up the largest share of his time; couple that with humanitarian missions and the non-emergency medical evacuation flights, he maintained a full schedule.
For all the similarities, Rine’s missions couldn’t have been more different. Each flight was unique, each mission just different enough to keep him on edge. And “on edge” is where this young Sergeant does his best work. He did a rotation in Iraq from November 2003 through March of 2004 and then went to Afghanistan late in 2004 and returned home in January 2005. He talked about the maneuvers their planes made to avoid the constant ground fire and the sense of relief that you got when you left the hostile fire zone. A flight from Baghdad to Landstuhl, Germany took eight long hours giving them a chance to regroup and relax a little; never failing to tend to the wounded which were always their number one priority.
Sometimes they had the luxury of a night in Germany, but more often than not, it was back to the base and to the tent they called home. There were also Med Evac flights to the fledgling nations of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Most missions found them transporting U.S. Military members, but like everything else that I learned from Rine about this type of work, change was their only constant. Rest assured, if you were a wounded Soldier, a civilian contractor, or a member of the Afghan or Iraqi Army, when Rine and his crew came for you, your odds of living just got better.
Out of the many tragedies Rine and his crew witnessed, arose a “little boy”. Another milk run in which Rine’s selflessness and devotion to duty never wavered. “A little boy,” I asked, “how did that happen?” This child just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time like so many others. His father was a physician in Afghanistan who had refused to conspire with the Taliban. His punishment was to witness his wife and young children being shot, only to then be executed himself. Having children of his own, Rine had a special spot in his heart for this young boy and getting him out safely and giving him the chance to live was priority number one. The little boy survived, he heard later, but like so many of the others that Rine helped they are just a memory now. He would never say it, but I hope that someday all Rine’s patients would get the chance to learn more about the man that helped them home; able to join the rest of this Nation in thanking him for his Service.
The talk of Guardsmen being called to Active Duty, and the financial hardships they endure received media coverage recently. I asked Rine how he managed the finances of these deployments. As a Cardiac Sonographer specializing in Pediatrics, his civilian job is to take Ultra-Sound images of the heart. It is a job that he feels called to do, and his chance to help children is his greatest reward. But bills need to be paid, and the military Staff Sergeant pay doesn’t equal what he makes at his civilian job. Personal experience tells me that the longer the deployment, the more money you stand to loose from your regular civilian job. Enter Lutheran Health Network CEO, Tom Miller. Rine asked for, and received, a personal meeting with Mr. Miller. Rine asked if Lutheran Health Network would join the growing list of Companies that help maintain the income of Guardsmen that are deployed. Mr. Miller’s response was simple and to the point, “I’ll check.” The decision was not one that Mr. Miller could make alone. It would have to be a “corporate” decision. A larger corporation called Triad owns the Lutheran Health Network. This corporation owns approximately 60 hospitals across the country, as well as, numerous urgent-care facilities such as Stat Care and surgery centers. A few weeks later Rine got the news he’d been hoping for. Rine’s request was not only for his own good, there are approximately 60 other employees in the Network that are also members of the Guard and Reserve. Triad granted Rine, and the others, pay matching. Triad makes up the difference between their employees civilian regular pay and their Military pay. One less concern for the person called away, and one less concern for those left behind.
But still no talk about Eric?
“Give me something,” I plead. So finally we get to talk about family. He has a brother, who is also a Guardsman, and a sister. His parents still live in the South-Central home that Eric grew up in. Now here comes the glow, the same one that he had when we talked about “his” Soldiers. Eric talked about how he couldn’t have made it without her. She happens to be Holly Rine, the love of Eric’s life and his wife of 13 years. Together they have six children; Kendra, 12; Cody, 10; Alyssa, 7; Madison, 6; Jaden 4 and the newest addition, Grace who just arrived April 5th. The children helped Holly keep the home-fire burning while he was away. Holly persevered like so many military spouses; business as usual in the regular family activities, regardless of where Dad is serving at the time. Church, school, sports, and the day-to-day lives that we all have, must go on. And so, the lives of Eric Rine and his family, and the many others like them, continue, never missing a beat.
I saw the Rine family in church one Sunday morning in late January, just like all the Sundays before, only this time the faces were a little bit brighter, and the smiles were a little bit bigger . . . Daddy was home.
Bio on Technical Sergeant Anthony E. Johnston, 122nd Fighter Wing
Technical Sergeant Anthony Johnston is a member of the Indiana Air National Guard, based at Fort Wayne International Airport, where he works on the Avionics Systems of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Tony has traveled over 300,000 miles with the Guard in his 21 years of Service.
The Johnston family moved to the Hessen Cassel area in 1995 and are members of Saint Joseph Catholic Church, Hessen Cassel. His parents are Sondra Johnston, Monroeville, and Harry Johnston, Fort Wayne.
He is a Monroeville native, graduating from Heritage High School in 1981. He is married to Marilyn Knapke. They have three children, Kaitlin, Alexandria and Jack.
Tony was a charter member of Knights of Columbus Council #12379, is the Chaplain of American Legion Post #420, and a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #10205.
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