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Patriotic Article
Heroes and Patriots

By Army SFC Merrion LaSonde

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Soldier Receives Texas Medal of Valor 26 Years Later
(June 30, 2011)

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Sgt. Maj. Larry Rayburn, information operations sergeant major with the 36th Infantry Division headquarters in Basrah, Iraq, received the Texas Medal of Valor from Maj. Gen. Eddy M. Spurgin, 36th Infantry Division commanding general on May 1, 2011. Rayburn earned the second highest Texas award for his actions during an ill-fated training exercise in Germany in 1985 when he was a lead scout with 2nd Platoon, Company G, 143rd Infantry (Airborne Ranger). Rayburn was one of two men, of a five-man “stick”, who escaped injury during an All-Weather Delivery System parachute jump. This was the first such jump for members of the Texas Army National Guard.
Sgt. Maj. Larry Rayburn, information operations sergeant major with the 36th Infantry Division headquarters in Basrah, Iraq, received the Texas Medal of Valor from Maj. Gen. Eddy M. Spurgin, 36th Infantry Division commanding general on May 1, 2011. Rayburn earned the second highest Texas award for his actions during an ill-fated training exercise in Germany in 1985 when he was a lead scout with 2nd Platoon, Company G, 143rd Infantry (Airborne Ranger). Rayburn was one of two men, of a five-man “stick”, who escaped injury during an All-Weather Delivery System parachute jump. This was the first such jump for members of the Texas Army National Guard. Courtesy Photo
 BASRAH, Iraq (6/27/2011) - In 1985, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, the Cold War was far from over and a record-breaking cold front swept through the U.S. leaving 40 dead in Chicago alone.

It was also the first time the Texas National Guard performed an All-Weather Delivery System parachute jump during an exercise in Germany. Then Cpl. Larry Rayburn was a lead scout with his team in Company G, 143rd Infantry (Airborne Ranger).

“We were in an M C-130 special operations airplane,” said Sgt. Maj. Larry Rayburn, now an information operations sergeant major for the 36th Infantry Division. “Half the plane was filled with the latest in geospatial technology at the time. They were supposed to be able to lock onto the drop zone utilizing satellite global positioning systems. It didn't work.

After maybe a dozen passes, the jumpmaster looked out the door and just shook his head. There was fog up to about 3,000 feet. When we finally got the green light to go, it was like jumping with a
pillowcase over my head. The team ended up missing the drop zone by five miles.”
The mission of the Ranger Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol company, assigned to 5th Corps in Germany, was to put a five-man team 50 to 300 kilometers behind enemy lines during the exercise. “There were a couple of brigades pretending to be the Russian army coming through the Fulda gap to invade Western Europe,” explained Rayburn.

The first “stick” that jumped consisted of Rayburn, Sgt. Richard Nutt, Sgt. Alex Williams, Sgt. Dave Lewis and Sgt. Ronald Contour. “We were the blue force and we parachuted behind their lines to gather information,” said Rayburn.

It was two in the morning, there was no moon; and it was foggy and cold. Rayburn remembers that to this day. “It was 20 degrees and snowing,” he said. “It was so cold my fingers and lips turned blue within a minute of exposure.”

Their mission started out bad and got worse. “Contour hit a hillside,” said Rayburn. “Nutt and I landed on opposite sides of a field. Williams hit a barn and Lewis landed in the river.”

Nutt landed about 150 to 200 meters from Rayburn, but both heard shouts from Lewis.

“The only reason we heard him was because of the topography,” explained Rayburn. “We were on the edge of a hill about 300 yards away from where Lewis and the river plane sloped up. On the other side of the river was a cliff about 50 yards in. His voice echoed perfectly and was able to reach us through the fog and snow.”

“We heard him hollering,” Rayburn continued. “We looked at each other, dropped our gear and took off running toward the river.”

The situation that greeted the two rangers was grim at best. The river, called the Wohura, was about 40 feet across. Lewis was in the middle of it submerged to his shoulders, clinging to his rucksack.

“Lewis looked a little scared,” said Rayburn. “He was shaking so bad he could not get his helmet off because his hands didn't work. It was so cold. The river was not very swift but all his parachute lines had wrapped around his legs; it was like being grabbed by an octopus. He could not get himself free.”

Part of ranger training for the team was to prepare for any situation. “We had learned long before to pack our rucksacks in such a way as to be used as flotation devices, because when we were dropped behind enemy lines we did not use roads to travel or bridges to cross rivers,” explained Rayburn. “We floated across, unseen by the enemy.”

The two men assessed the situation, calculated how much longer Lewis had to survive and quickly reacted on instinct.

“We saw him in the river, removed our jackets and boots, drew our knives and jumped into the water,” said Rayburn. “It was about seven or eight feet deep. After three or four steps my feet could not touch bottom. Now I am not a strong swimmer so I was already terrified, but we had to get Lewis out of that water and fast. We dog-paddled to him and just started cutting him out. We saw that the opposite shore was closer so we went that way. We got him on shore and broke out our [survival, evasion, resistance, escape] SERE kits.”

The goal of the U.S. Army's training in SERE is to teach personnel how to survive if they become separated from their unit, to evade a hostile force and make their way back to friendly forces and to avoid capture. In the event that soldiers are captured, SERE training will have prepared them to resist the enemy's attempts at exploitation, to escape from captivity and to return home with honor.

All the team members carried SERE kits in their cargo pockets in preparation for surviving any situation on their own. The kits included items such as fishing line and space blankets.

By the time the three men got out of the water they were all shaking and shivering with the onset of hypothermia. Nutt and Rayburn remembered passing a farmhouse a few hundred yards back. Rayburn swam back across the river and ran to the farmhouse. When he got there he banged on the door and yelled “Amerikaner Falshirmjager in fluss, wir ist kalt!” [American paratroopers in the river and we're cold].

“The farmer got on his tractor and drove to a bridge further upriver to get to the field where Nutt and Lewis were trying to get warm,” said Rayburn. Once they were safe and warm in the farmhouse and wearing dry clothes, Nutt began calling the company to coordinate recovery and Rayburn went out to look for the rest of the team.

“I went along the path knowing how we landed and about 300 meters away was the farmer's barn,” said Rayburn. “Alex Williams was in the barnyard passed out. He had landed on the roof of the barn, was dragged off the roof by his rucksack, then landed on his head, which knocked him out cold. I knew he had a severe concussion because he would not respond. I could not wake him up. His parachute was frozen and I couldn't get it off so I cut it loose, picked him up and carried him to the farmhouse. He was six foot three inches tall but slender; he only weighed in at about 180 pounds. I slung him over my shoulder and humped the 300 meters back to the farmhouse.”

With Williams now safe at the farmhouse, Rayburn once again went out to find the final member of his team. “I found Contour limping down the hill towards the farmhouse using two rifles as crutches.”

The entire team together and safe, Rayburn returned to each spot where his team members landed and recovered all the sensitive items he could. Lewis' rucksack was the only thing he could not recover on his own. Fortunately, Nutt had already thought ahead and requested that the recovery team bring in a grappling hook to ensure 100% of the equipment would be recovered.

Rayburn and Nutt were recommended for awards for their actions following the exercise. Many years and award recommendations later, Rayburn received a much deserved Texas Medal of Valor, the second highest award for Texas Military Forces. Maj. Gen. Eddy M. Spurgin, 36th Inf. Div. commanding general, pinned the medal on Rayburn in May 2011.

Richard Nutt never received the recognition he was due for his actions on that winter day in Germany. He died of brain cancer in 1992, although his airborne comrades showed him the honor he had earned.

“One of the last things Nutt wanted to do was go to Australia,” said Rayburn. “He had a travel pamphlet that he had told his mother about before he got sick. After he was cremated, his mother found an airborne task force that was going to Australia for an operation in 1993. The jumpmasters all got together and we brought his ashes with us. He was the first jumper for the entire task force. Then we followed after him.”

Rayburn currently serves with the 36th Infantry Division headquarters where he helps coordinate information operations in the nine southern provinces of Iraq. This is his fourth deployment in a career that began in 1978. After numerous duty assignments and many years in the service, the LRRP team he served with as an Airborne Ranger holds a very special place in his heart.

“In 1985 when I served with LRRP, there were only three units that were allowed to wear the black beret; the Ranger regiment and the two independent LRRP companies,” explained Rayburn. “The guys I served with were special men. Many had served in the Ranger Battalion, Special Forces or in combat in Vietnam. The unit was 120 percent strength and only one of two units like it in the National Guard. Everyone loved what they did and was very dedicated. They taught me what it meant to be a soldier.”

After everything he went through for his team during that ill-fated exercise, Rayburn wants to ensure credit is given where it is due.

“The most important thing to me is that everyone knows I share this with Staff Sgt. Richard Nutt,” he said. “There is no way either one of us could have done what we did on our own. Had either one of us been there by ourselves, everyone would have died. I am very thankful he was with me on that cold, winter day.”

By Army SFC Merrion LaSonde, 36th Infantry Division, USD-S PAO
Contributing Writer: Sgt. Thomas Kappus, 305th MPAD
Copyright 2011

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