Tomorrow will be a sad day for me, and for many more who, like me, were lucky enough to be associated with one of the truly great military units. Special Projects Patrol Squadron ONE (VPU-1), nicknamed the “Old Buzzards,” will be formally disestablished in a ceremony at NAS Jacksonville in Florida. They recently (July 2009) moved there from NAS Brunswick in Maine, which is where I got to know them when I was stationed there from 1999 to 2002.
The squadron traces its roots back to 1969 when the military saw the need for an airborne asset that could quickly deploy to anywhere in the world to perform, well, “special projects.” Sailors were usually screened before assignment to VPU-1, to make sure they possessed the skills and maturity necessary for the demanding and rigorous missions the squadron would be called on to perform. This practice–and the justified sense of accomplishment from doing anything and everything, anywhere at all–bestowed upon the Sailors of VPU-1 the strongest sense of military professionalism I’ve ever encountered. You never needed to brag or show off because you’d been there, done that…and done it well. They set the standard for excellence and you met it, because there really wasn’t any other option.
There is an end to everything, to good things as well. — Chaucer
Regardless of what Hollywood says, there are no individuals that save the day…there are no John Rambos, no James Bonds, no John McClanes. There isn’t a lone superspy nattily dressed in a tuxedo and sipping a martini as he pulls the trigger on a sniper rifle, firing a bullet that goes through the chest of some evil dictator on its way to hit the self-destruct button of the mountain fortress, tossing off some witty bon mot (“Well, that gets to the heart of the matter!”) to the sexy young princess at his side. No…real missions that matter are performed by teams and organizations. The details might forever be classified…but those people don’t do it for the glory, they do it because it needs to be done, no medals or ticker-tape parades required.
For all-too-short a time, I got to work with exactly that sort of unit. We got to travel all over the world and do things they’ll never write books or movies about. Mostly because, while they are exciting and world-affecting to those in the know, an outside observer with no experience might just go “Huh? So what?” And after 9/11, well…let’s just say that Hollywood writers would be interested then…but they’ll never get the clearance. What we did then…what they have done since…was important. And it mattered.
Everything that has a beginning has an end. — The Oracle
But now…now, strictly for sound administrative reasons, VPU-1 is being disestablished. The mission goes on…their sister squadron, the VPU-2 “Wizards,” based in Hawaii, will absorb most of the squadron personnel and equipment and carry on doing what needs to be done. But it’s sad to think that there won’t be any more “Old Buzzards,” no more planes emblazoned with that ol’ hard-drinkin’ cigar-chompin’ vulture.
Many people who used to fly in those cantankerous old P-3 Orions (God, but I loved those birds!) are gathered in Jacksonville right now, ostensibly there to attend tomorrow’s ceremony. But really, it’s probably the best sort of wake, the kind where old friends gather to tell stories of days gone by. They’ll raise their glasses and toast to fond memories of out-of-the-way airfields in exotic locales, of long long hours of flying, of adventures had and evildoers vanguished. Unfortunately, I can’t make it there in person…but I’ll be there in spirit, lifting my own glass. To all Old Buzzards, past and present…there won’t be any more.