CORSICANA, Texas — Millions of fans of the superhero universe thrilled to see never-ending sequels with characters like Iron Man, but sometimes it’s much more interesting to spend a little time with the real deal.
A few years ago, former Congressman Steve Knight, Army vet, called and issued me an invitation: “You’ve got to come to the office for a ceremony. I’ve never seen so many medals for one guy.”
One of the former congressman’s joys while in office was securing medals for veterans who never got recognition in an official medal pinning ceremony. Many vets left the combat zone with the decorations listed only in their military records when they came home. When I got to the congressman’s office, I recognized the guy.
It was no surprise that during his decades with L.A. County Sheriff’s Department his call sign was “Duke.” Bob Mahoney is who John Wayne, “The Duke,” would have been if he could have been. Mahoney wasn’t Hollywood. Not a superhero. Just the old-fashioned real deal.
Knight pinned a few medals, right below silver paratrooper wings embroidered on the chest of the polo shirt Mahoney’s wore that day. The decorations left on the mounting board looked like the Medals of America catalogue. He was a Seabee in Vietnam, still in his teens.
A law enforcement career followed, with military Reserve volunteer assignments. He went to jump school and qualified as a Green Beret at 40. Who does that? We all get older. He went to Iraq as first sergeant in an airborne unit some 40 years after Vietnam. His son deployed with him in the same unit.
He had so many medals, including the Purple Heart, the award for combat wounded. “I’ve been shot at in a lot of countries,” Mahoney quipped.
A couple of years ago, I checked a box on my bucket list, went back to renew my military parachutist qualifications with a veteran commemorative team. After a few refresher jumps that were surprisingly similar to Army jump school, I traveled to France on the D-Day anniversary at Normandy in June 2022.
About a year before I left for France with the Liberty Jump Team, Duke Mahoney took me for coffee at Crazy Otto’s and said, “I want to do that, too.”
I told him he looked like an excellent prospect for old and bold. There was only one hitch.
“Can I do it with this?” He showed me the prosthetic artificial limb where his right leg should be.
Late in life Agent Orange complications took his leg. He added, “I really want to jump again.”
I felt like telling him, “I want to tall, but it ain’t gonna happen.”
But by blind chance, he came to the right Iraq battle buddy. And by a fluke of statistics, I knew someone who might be able to help Duke live out his dream. Of course, the other guy was named Butch. Duke and Butch, there’s a couple of old school monikers for you.
Butch Garner, another Vietnam vet, is the only one-legged jumpmaster I know. Butch lost his leg to a Viet Cong grenade about 50 years ago and runs training for the non-profit Liberty Jump Team. Butch has been jumping for more than 50 years.
“Butch really brought me along,” Mahoney said. “He was just really patient.”
For reasons that are historically obscure, paratroopers have a patronizing term for troops who do not jump from perfectly good airplanes. With a mix of affection and derision, non-Airborne troops are referred to as “legs,” or “straight legs,” as in straight leg infantry. Mostly there’s no harm in it. It’s like making a joke about the Marines. You can do it, but you’d better be a Marine.
Bob Mahoney might have one good leg, but he’s no “leg.” Never has been, in spirit, history, or fact. Often, an amputation can pitch a patient into deep depression. For Bob, the experience was motivation to get, as team members say, “his knees back in the breeze.”
Last week, where the Liberty Jump Team trains in Texas, these two old-school paratroopers, with two good legs between them, hooked up. Then Duke Mahoney leaped into the void from a World War II vintage troop transport and added to the ranks of old and bold one-legged paratroopers.
He joined some of the other Liberty Jump Team retreads out on the drop zone where the team trains and practices in Corsicana, Texas. Two re-qualification jumps are made from a Cessna 172 that usually halls skydivers. The third jump is from the classic, the C-47 Skytrain transport from the fleet used to carry 13,000 American paratroopers on D-Day 1944.
“It was clear that Bob is one of us,” said another guy named Bob — Bob Jimenez, a Liberty Jump Team veteran parachutist from the 82nd Airborne Division. “Not knowing ‘Duke’s background, I was immediately impressed with his positive attitude in training and how he quickly adjusted his technique to fit his level. He had moxy by the trainload.”
“It was great,” Mahoney said, sounding like a kid who got the bike under the Christmas tree. “I didn’t much care for the Cessna, but the C-47, that was amazing.”
Along the way the 70-something Green Beret veteran got to hang out with brother and sister paratroopers, Special Forces veterans, all joined in the order of military parachutists.
“What a great bunch,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience.”
He puts his pants on one leg at a time. Like a paratrooper, he still blouses both boots.
Editor’s note: Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group, an Army paratrooper veteran and journalist in the Antelope Valley for more than 30 years.