While his youthful memories consist of August summers spent sailing the Vineyard Haven harbor, 27-year-old Lieutenant Mason W. Berry collected a different memory late one afternoon last August.
He was flying from Kuwait to Iraq in a sandstorm. The storm winds were clocking over 60 miles per hour. He was piloting a Navy MH-60 Sierra helicopter, and the intent of his mission was to pick up an injured soldier at a base in Iraq and get him to Kuwait and on to a German hospital for much needed care as soon as possible.
“Yes, a lot of people there are having difficult times,” Mr. Berry said, referring to the military’s work in the Middle East. “But I love my job. Despite the fact that I have to be away from my friends and family for a long time, I find flying to be exhilarating.”
Lieutenant Berry was here on the Island this past week to share his memories with loved ones and also with students at the regional high school. His father, Andrew Berry, is a teacher of government and United States history at the school. It was a natural moment, a time open for students to get a different view of the Middle East from what they’ve seen on paper and on television, that of the military. Last week, Mr. Berry met with more than 100 students to share his stories of serving in the Navy. He was on a mission and he was well received. He was accompanied by his girlfriend, Ensign Molly Meyerink, a Navy surface warfare officer from San Diego.
This was not a ROTC talk, one with the goal of bringing people into the Navy. For Mr. Berry, it was an opportunity to share his work with others, for positive result.
“I liked the basic questions,” Mr. Berry said, while seated in the dining area of his parents’ home in Vineyard Haven. “They asked me: ‘Do you like your job?’ All they hear about is hardship that goes on in the military. I wanted to give out my perspective. That while it is difficult work, we do have fun with our work. I wanted to give my side of things. As soon as you realize you are serving your country, this is a job like a lot of other jobs. It is like any job. I could be working at a bank. I may not entirely agree with the CEO of the bank, but I may very much enjoy my job and I can enjoy my part in the whole corporation, politics aside.”
Mr. Berry said that while he was in high school, a private school in Washington, D.C., he never got the full picture of the modern day Navy. The popular perception, he said, is still of the World War II Navy, when ships battled ships and there were kamikaze airplanes. “I don’t ever remember discussing the modern day Navy. That didn’t come until college. I told the students to visit the Navy Web site.”
The Navy gets involved in humanitarian operations, he said.
As an aircraft commander, Mr. Berry said for the last nine months he has done medevacs back and forth between Iraq and Kuwait, working for the 2515th Naval Air Ambulance Detachment. It is all about doing professional work, and at times, encountering adverse conditions.
Last August, Mr. Berry said there were several flights where the weather conditions were rough. But there was that one August flight that he recalled most vividly. Flying low to the ground through a windy sandstorm at over 100 miles per hour, Mr. Berry recalled that he and his co-pilot began to experience vertigo, a moment when their bodies were disoriented, unable to know what was up and what was down. While the instruments helped, Mr. Berry said he had to decide whether to abort the mission or continue on.
“It was a bit scary. We had the instruments, we’ve practiced this a lot. But we were in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a desert and we had to ask can we continue the mission.
“I made the decision, to press forward to the other base,” Mr. Berry said. Fortunately, they not only completed the flight, they got the injured soldier where he needed to be. “It validated all the training I’d done,” Mr. Berry said.
Mr. Berry said he wanted to convey to the high school students a sense of pride, that what he does is worthwhile, and set the record straight that the Navy is a positive experience.
He said he rarely hears from the injured soldiers he has helped. “Periodically we hear back from the folks. We don’t get the joy of watching the relatives meet them, when they get off the plane, but we all understand the implications of the work we do,” Mr. Berry said. “This is always a rewarding experience for me.”
Mr. Berry also told the regional students a more personal story. “I want to share with them that goals are achievable. I was not a top student in my high school, by any means. I had average grades. But I was very determined. I buckled down and knew what I wanted to do. I put in the time and focus.”
Mr. Berry credits his experiences as a young sailor on the Vineyard waterfront for his decision to join the Navy. “Sailing on the Vineyard got me interested in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy,” he said.
While here, Mr. Berry said he has visited with his grandfather, Robert Berry of Edgartown. There was plenty to share. “He was there when I graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis in 2004. It is fun giving him an update. I think he liked meeting Molly. When he was in the Navy, women didn’t have the role they do now. He was intrigued to get her perspective.”
Of the Vineyard high school students, he said he learned a lot. “I was impressed with how the students are informed about the politics and what is going on. We got a lot of questions about the new administration’s policy, the new change in direction with the Middle East and Afghanistan. Those are great questions. Personally, for me, it is going in the right direction, but a lot remains to be seen.
“A lot of people wanted to focus on the past. In my opinion, whether we should have gone is now irrelevant. The decision was made. We went there and we are committed. Lives were lost, money and resources were spent. To dwell in the past is probably not the right way to go about things. I told the students, what they should be concerned about is the future. There should be a healthy discussion about whether you agree. As long as you are informed about what the capabilities of this country are, what the United States can and can not do.”
But the best part of the visit for Mr. Berry was giving the students an opportunity to meet him and his girlfriend, to bring the students closer to the lifestyle of the Navy, or, in his words, “to make it personal.”