NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. – Nearly 18 years after Maj. Jason Altchek’s C-141 Starlifter evacuated a group of American medical students, among them Robert Shapiro, from Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury, a chance meeting between the two men’s wives reunited the pair.
In October 1983, Altchek was a navigator on a C-141 stationed in Charleston, S.C. Robert Shapiro was a young medical student in his first year of training. The men were worlds apart, but the U.S. invasion of Grenada would tie the two together.
Urgent Fury. Earlier that month, a Marxist group with ties to Cuba arrested and murdered Grenada’s prime minister and several members of his cabinet.
In response to an appeal for assistance from the governor general and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, U.S. forces, along with forces from several other Caribbean states, began an invasion of Grenada Oct. 25 dubbed Operation Urgent Fury.
The mission’s objective was to protect U.S. citizens on the island and restore the lawful government. Among the hundreds of American citizens on the island was a group of medical students attending St. George’s Medical School.
“I was in my first year of medical school, and there was a coup going on in Grenada,” said Shapiro, now a surgeon in Las Vegas. “As students, we were pretty immune to the whole thing at first, but then these rebels grabbed the prime minister and his cabinet and executed them.
“We found out what was going on that afternoon, when they declared martial law and said that anyone caught outside of their homes would be shot on sight,” he said.
“The U.S. government kept trying to negotiate our release, but there was no way to get us off the island, because the rebels wouldn’t give permission for any military planes to come in and get us.”
Shapiro said all that the students could do was sit and wait.
Altchek’s role. Meanwhile, at Charleston, then-1st Lt. Altchek, just eight months out of flight school, was given deployment orders along with the rest of his C-141 crewmates to fly to Grenada.
“We really didn’t know what was going on when we left Charleston,” Altchek said. “We didn’t have any intelligence at all. I’m proud to say that wouldn’t happen today, but at the time, we were relying on the folks who lived there to tell us what was going on when we got there.”
Initially, the crew was told to wait for the upload of cargo, which turned out to be captured Soviet equipment. Altchek said he didn’t know anything about the medical students until his crew was told to stay and wait for them
“We really didn’t have any idea what these folks had gone through until we got there, and then we found out how serious things were,” he said.
While Altchek and his crewmates waited, Army Rangers were busy getting the medical students out and safely on board CH-46 Sea Knight Marine helicopters where they were flown back to the waiting C-141 in Point Salinas.
Headed home. After several delays due to rebel ground fire, the C-141 and its passengers took off and headed for Charleston. During the flight, Shapiro said, he begged his way up into the flightdeck to visit with the crew.
“I remember going into the cockpit, and seeing that their ‘intelligence’ map was just a little Xerox copy of a tourist map,” he said.
Altchek remembered how happy the young medical student was to be on his way back to the United States.
“I could tell he was a little frazzled,” Altchek said. “He had just witnessed numerous people being murdered. Our conversation focused on what he had been through and how deeply happy he was for our efforts.”
Chance reunion. After the operation, Altchek continued his Air Force career and Shapiro resumed his medical training, eventually becoming a surgeon. Nearly 18 years after the rescue, a conversation between the two men’s wives led to their reunion.
“My wife, Sharon, who is a nurse, was talking to (Dr. Shapiro’s) wife, who is an OB/GYN, and somehow the subject came up that her husband had a very warm spot in his heart for the military, as they had rescued him from Grenada,” Altchek said. “My wife said I was one of the aircrew who took part, and we spoke to each other.”
Altchek invited Shapiro and his wife to Nellis and the two men shared memories of that day in October 1983.
“This is so exciting to me, because I was just 23 at the time, but Grenada is something that has always been in the back of my mind,” Shapiro said. “I’m so very grateful to all those people who came in and got us out of there.”
The major was pleased that Shapiro remembered him after all this time.
“I would have thought that after 17 years and him becoming a doctor, that he would have forgotten,” Altchek said. “Not only did he remember, but he brought me photos he had framed of the rescue. It somehow made me feel like I had really made a difference.”
Altchek said the two men have forged a friendship they plan to continue.
“You never really know how what happens to you today can have a profound effect on you or others down the road,” he said.