They are times you don’t forget —- when you get a glimpse of the steel that makes a warrior a warrior.
Twice in the past seven years I’ve had those days.
Once I sat in the living room of retired Gen. Paul Tibbets, who led the first A-bomb mission on Hiroshima.
On the other occasion, I was in the hospital room of Shannon West Redwine, who, after fighting for years to ensure that the homeless and troubled youth in Las Vegas were treated with caring and dignity, was now fighting the excruciating pain of breast cancer that had spread to her bones.
It was 2005, just before the 60th anniversary of the first use of the atomic bomb, when I visited the then 90-year-old Tibbets in his Ohio home. Though he had been refusing interviews, he agreed to talk so that the role of the Wendover airfield on the Nevada-Utah border during World War II could be better understood.
There, he noted, the assembly and delivery of the world’s most violent engine of war, what would bring World War II to an end, was perfected in secret. What wasn’t known, until after the bombs were dropped, is whether the American B-29’s would be blown out of the sky by the nuclear blasts.
Tibbets sat in front of me and photographer Jeff Scheid for three hours, often twisting and grimacing, as he talked about commanding the nuclear strike force at age 29. He spoke little of a mission over Hitler-occupied Europe where he was wounded.
During the interview, I asked the general, who died in 2007, why he seemed uncomfortable. Must have slept wrong, he said.
After our session, I talked with Tibbets’ wife of 48 years about her husband’s seeming discomfort.
He had, she said, broken several vertebrae in his back during a fall while moving a bookcase a couple of days before. He was doing the interview against doctor’s orders and had gotten an epidural that very day in an effort to try to kill the pain.
“Once he gives his word that he’s going to do something, he does it,” she said.
I thought about Tibbets when I visited West Redwine, then a Stage IV breast cancer patient, at Sunrise Hospital in September. We were supposed to meet at her home for a story I was doing for the special pink breast cancer awareness edition of the Review-Journal, but her pain had become so intense that she went to the hospital for an IV drip of painkiller.
Pain or no pain, she wanted to talk, to remind people that breast cancer devastation still isn’t a memory, that people with genetic forms of the disease need to get their whole families involved for possible prophylactic care.
Remember, this was the county’s former regional homeless coordinator, who tirelessly fought for the homeless in a city where public officials worked far harder at criminalizing homelessness than at restoring hope to people. Still, she persevered, finding the wisest way to spend money designated for fighting homelessness, while also coordinating outreach efforts.
Even after she was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 —- last month she died much too young at the age of 45 – she could be found trudging through homeless encampments, talking people into shelters, getting children into school, assuring them they had the talent to work toward a better world of their own building.
She finally took a disability retirement in 2010 and soon afterward county officials renamed a shelter for homeless youths after her.
As I stood by her bedside at Sunrise, her pain was so intense at times that she panted like a woman in the last stages of labor. When waves of pain passed, she said it was important for women who came from a family with a genetic predisposition to breast cancer, as she did, to get tested very early, so they didn’t end up like her.
Her husband, Kevin Redwine, wasn’t surprised, despite her condition, that his wife continued to try to help others.
“That’s Shannon,” he said.
So it goes in the world of warriors.
Paul Harasim is the medical reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His column appears Mondays. Harasim can be reached at email@example.com or 702-387-2908.