Death of Sean Luketina during the Grenada Invasion in 1983

Sergeant Sean Luketina was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, 82nd Signal Battalion, Alpha Company, Assault CP. He was seriously wounded in Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury, 27 October 1983. SGT Luketina slipped in and out of a coma until  he died 8 months later, 30 June 1984, in the VA hospital in North Carolina. President Ronald Reagan mentioned Sean Luketina in a speech to the corps of cadets at West Point in October 1987. Reagan was impressed by the professionalism of Luketina which was noted in a conversation between SGT Luketina and his father COL Robin Luketina. COL Luketina asked his son if it was worth it, getting wounded, and if he would do it again. Sean said yes, it was worth it, and he would do it again.


Sean Luketina
Sean Luketina

The early 1980s was a turbulent time in the US. Ronald Reagan was elected into the White House taking over from a president, Jimmy Carter, who was perceived as a weak leader. That perception was formed by some of his decisions while in office that saw the gutting of the armed forces and especially some of the Special Operation Forces, CIA, and intelligence assets deployed forward in Europe and the Middle East. Towards the end of Carter’s term in office the Iranian Student’s revolution started with the capture and hostage taking of embassy members and American civilians in Iran. The newly formed SFOD-Delta squadrons, led by Colonel Charlie Beckwith, planned but failed to properly execute a rescue mission to get the hostages out. It was a black spot on the military and Special Operation Forces community. These hostages were detained and held captive until Reagan was elected into office in 1980. Almost immediately after taking office, the hostages were released. Although Reagan’s election and the subsequent release of the hostages was a boost to morale, it seemed were we still under a dark cloud of doom hanging over the military. There was the assassination attempt on Reagan, Aircraft Controllers Strike, the cold war was in churn, and with the Lebanese civil war, came an attack on the Marine barracks killing 241 military personnel. The hits kept coming. Meanwhile in the Caribbean and Latin American the US was dealing with Castro and the rise of Communist influence in the region in countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua, bringing into focus the island nation of Grenada where Communist backed militia, the People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA), executed Maurice Bishop, the Grenadian Prime Minister and his top aides. A formal appeal from the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) led to the intervention of U.S. forces; President Reagan also cited a regional threat posed by a Soviet-Cuban military build-up in the Caribbean and concern for the safety of several hundred American medical students at St. George’s University as adequate reasons to invade. Operation Urgent Fury would be the first major military operation conducted by U.S. forces since the Vietnam War.

Pre-Deployment (23-24 October)

The 82nd Airborne Division was in its normal DRB and DRF rotation with the 2nd Brigade on mission cycle. For the two warriors who are the focus of this article, Sean Luketina and Harry Shaw, things were normal. Constantly reacting to Division, Brigade, and Slice recalls was the once a week pain in the ass it had always been, formations in the middle of the night, comms checks, issue of COMSEC, rehearsals in the LAC area or Cocksure field. Those notifications and preparation briefings had become common-place and shrugged off with a yawn and the familiar phrase, “Hey, when can we get outta here”? Along with the non-stop get ready to wait, stand-by to stand-by, came shifts in assignments for deployment duties. For Harry this meant him being re-assigned temporarily to Charlie Battery versus his normal role in Alpha Battery, Harry would be the RTO for the FIST team, calling in fires, identifying targets, verifying coordinates and locations on tourist maps. “Initially, the teams did not get an issue for military maps for Grenada and had to rely on tourist maps. We we’re finally issued topographic maps late on the afternoon of the 27th of October, but these maps were in very short supply and not all teams and units had access to them. I remember reporting some of our targets on the new maps shortly before were hit by the air strike. We kept both sets of maps up to date to check and I would double check targets and coordinates, depending on who was calling for fire on what targets.”

For Sean and Blake Nelson, it would be a flip-flop of RTO roles as Blake was attached to the “ground troops” and Sean was mad because he had to support the HQ elements. Sean commented, “why does the cherry get to go with the infantry guys?!” At end-state, Blake Nelson, was assigned to be the RTO for Marine Anglico Liaison Team and Sean would RTO for 2nd Brigade TOC.

The RTO job is a thankless job, until you are needed. And when you are needed, leaders do not want to wait, they want action now. You are expected to jump through hoops and perform! You should know every important frequency and every important callsign. You must know where the batteries are, know where the SIGO is, know where the wiremen are and what they are working on. RTOs are not a dime a dozen. They are special soldiers put in a position of awesome responsibility. Whenever this is in doubt, a Senior NCO, Ops officer, Staff officer, or Commander, will quickly replace you and you don’t want that. Hell no. You want to be the go-to guy. You want to be the RTO the S-3 asks for during the OP Order or MACO briefing. In Assault CP you are expected to be the best RTO in the Division. No slack! Almost all of us live up to this most of the time.

Deployment Day (25 October)

Harry Shaw recalls deployment day. “We were called out on a Monday. We had been through three of these recently. We were told this one was for real. I looked down and saw that I had worn my good Corcoran Jump boots. I thought, damn, I’m gonna mess up my best pair of jump boots. They told us we might jump into the airfield but within a few hours that was old news and now we might air-land. So, we would end up taking our chutes with us when we boarded. Ammo was issued and when it came to the line for LAWs, I asked for and took three LAWs. I also got my share of ammo, batteries, meals, and was issued my PRC-77 radio.”

D-Day +1 (26 October)

“In the morning, after air-landing with CPT McMillen, the Battery Commander, I was informed I would be moved over to 2nd Brigade and fill in as the FIST, running radio and Maps in the TOC. I was originally assigned to the Fire Direction Center and forward observer as part of A Battery, 1st of the 320th Airborne Field Artillery Battalion and later C battery. After landing at the airfield, I moved out for the 2nd Brigade TOC and that is where I first met Sean. He was RTO for the Brigade command net. I was doing targeting, monitoring the command fires net, and calling for fires. It was a helluva an experience. I was proud to see our FA guns rolled right off the aircraft ramp and within minutes put into action putting lead downrange on the Grenada radio station. The guns were damn near parallel to the ground in a direct fire mode. I don’t think they ever trained for that scenario, but it looked like they were doing their job just fine. Navy A7s were doing gun runs overhead. They were launched off the USS Independence. The Rangers had already secured the medical students in our area. North of the runway. These students could not be evacuated until the radio station and barracks were taken down. The 102 howitzers, FAs 105s, and A7s were working on taking these down as fast as possible.

A few hours later, a blue local water truck stopped by to give us intel on the bad guys, to include information on the armor assets on the island, BTR60s. They also let us tap into his water. The water was horrible, but the intel was good. The BTR60s were identified shortly thereafter and stopped in their tracks by the Ranger’s using the 90mm recoilless rifles. A few were taken out by simply shooting out the tires and calling in fires on them. They didn’t last long before they were a smoldering wreck. The Rangers continued their missions and the rest of the 82nd continued to air-land into the airfield. That night was a sleepless night. The Navy was firing illumination rounds all night. The 2nd Brigade Commander was pissed. It exposed his troop positions and it was not needed. The Rangers and the 82nd had the area in hand.”

D-Day +2 (27 October)

“CNN was due to arrive. It was Cristian Amanpour and her film crew. I was informed that I would be the one to escort her team around the airfield and filming sites. It was a pain in the ass but a small break from RTO duties. Out of the blue, a Russian Diplomat arrived in a nice Mercedes Benz. He was stopped by the guards, frisked, and his car was searched and confiscated. It was hilarious. Our guard jumped in the car and drove it to the Brigade CP and turned it over to the OIC. The talk of the morning was, how can we get this awesome vehicle back to Bragg?

The CNN crew was taken to an arms warehouse to take pics and video of the weapons that had been discovered cached. We quickly wrapped up the CNN mission and returned to the TOC. 2nd Brigade decided to move the TOC closer to the bowl areas. There were ZSU 23-2s, the twin barreled 23 mm anti-aircraft guns with ammo still in the cradles. There were also ZPU-4s, the four barreled 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns that were still loaded. We took over the barracks. It was a mess. Contraband was everywhere but we really didn’t have time to mess with it. After we secured our gear in the barracks area we returned to the TOC to resume RTO duties. After being onsite for four hours at 330 we did a prep fire for Calliste Barracks to take them down. We called in Field Artillery, Spectre gunships, and A7s. It was towards the end of this mission that we started taking enemy fire from our front from the hamlets of Ruth Howard, Sugar Mill, and the village of Frequente. There was a drive-in theater nearby and an enemy motor pool that we had captured earlier along with a few BTR 60 armored personnel carriers. The “Battle of the Drivein” would become one of the last engagements where we engaged the enemy. We were in an elevated position near the “drive in” We could see snipers and did our best to identify and report their locations to the 82nd Infantry units on the ground. Within a few minutes I witnessed the sniper and most of that building taken down by a LAW. Our building was taking fire. We couldn’t identify where it was coming from and the TOC personnel were instructed to get out and only leave essential personnel. Those essential personnel were S-3, RTOs, liaisons, commanders, and limited staff officers. It was during this battle that one of the US Navy A7 Corsairs from the USS Independence would break off from its previous station over the Calvigny Barracks to the east and come in low, fast and level with our position and strafe us with 20 mm cannon fire. I would find out later that the Marine Anglico team had called in the air strike on the enemy that was firing to our front. The strike was 600 meters off and 17 out of 25 members of the TOC were hit.”

Blake Nelson was an Assault CP soldier and the RTO for the ANGLICO Marine Liaison team. He was assigned to them the second morning after arrival to the island. Due to a bad link up plan, he had to ruck to locate them along the road from the airfield deeper into the island. He caught up with them after rucking an unknown number of miles. The ANGLICO team continued to proceed past the drive in and further to the end of the village. “We were at an intersection leading up into the village when the small arms fire began.” Blake recalls the events. “Small arms fire started coming in from a house on the higher part of the hillside village. The ANGLICO Officer called in air support as directed by one of the commanders. When the A-7’s came close the ANGLICO Officer vectored them into the target building. They flew over, too far right the first time, and corrections were passed to them…” it’s over your left shoulder!”. The second pass they were too far left and once again corrections were given by the ANGLICO Officer….” Its over your right shoulder!” The lead aircraft acknowledged that “he had identified the target and would be coming in hot”. So, we waited for what we thought would be a pass to the target from the same two previous navigation tracks. Well, they came over what I would say was 90 degrees off their previous passes. The Officer picked up the handset and ordered ABORT, ABORT, ABORT!! They were directly over our heads at that point and One burst was fired by the A7. We knew the TOC was on that path, however we did not know what damage was done or if anyone was hit until a bit later, maybe an hour. The infantry elements were assaulting the target building with small arms and 203 grenade launchers, which were having an excellent effect on the target. The small arms fire subsided after about 40 minutes after it started.”

I asked Blake if the incident was ever investigated? Did you ever get a full explanation of why it happened? “I heard that it was, and they were blaming the ANGLICO Officer for the mishap, however I was two feet from him, heard every transmission and it was clearly a navigational mistake by the Aircraft pilot.”

Harry Shaw: “I could see an A7 approaching. I told Sean we had an A7 coming towards us. I got up, took two step and was hit. I was hit by 20-millimeter rounds. Sean was blown against the wall with his back against the wall. Sean and I were both badly injured. We were both in a daze and talking about dying. Further up the barracks Sgt Joey Stewart was hit badly as well. My right leg below the knee was missing and perhaps four inches of my right shin bone shone eerily white against the blood that was gathering everywhere about me. I remember looking for my right boot. For a time, I could not find it and thought that it must have been destroyed, that is, until I felt something over by my right ear. It was my boot, still perfectly bloused in my Corcoran Jump Boot and the boot was still sporting a decent spit-shine! Strangely, I took comfort that even in the face of destruction, I was able to relish in this bit of military precision. At least some part of me was in uniform! My left leg was totally shattered from well above the knee. It was obvious to me that there was no way that the doctors were going to be able to save my legs—providing I could get medical attention. Also, I did not know it yet, but I had also taken internal injuries that would eventually necessitate the removal of half of my small intestine. I knew three things right then. Number one, I was in a great deal of pain. I have heard it told and often repeated that when someone if injured severely that that person does not feel pain. I can only assume whoever made this lie up had never really been injured because the pain was immense! Number two: I was thirsty–very, very thirsty. I could not believe that it would be possible to be that thirsty. I was losing a lot of blood fast. Lastly, my legs were gone. If I survived this my life would be forever different. Right now, I wanted two things, something to drink and morphine. I would deal with the missing legs later, if I survived. “

Medevac’d Out

“When we were triaged initially by CPT Nash, it was determined that I should be medevac’d first because I needed immediate medical attention. Sean was medevac’d a few minutes later. They flew us out to the USS Independence where they had surgical teams standing by for both of us. They didn’t expect me to make it. The medics had me on a litter and strapped me in and lowered me by the aircraft elevator to the decks below. I was in serious pain but distinctly remember slipping off the litter. When the medics loaded me on the medevac they placed me on a make shift back board from a door that was blown off in the room. It had become covered with my blood and as they were lowering me into the hold this is what was causing me to slip out of the litter. Of course, I held on for my life. I went in and out of consciences a few times that night. I knew that Sean had been in the same area. I later learned that he had shrapnel wounds in both legs and had also taken shrapnel directly beneath his flak vest in the liver area. This injury to his liver would be his undoing months later. After I was evacuated to the states I tried to keep tabs on Sean and his condition. I heard that he was medevac’d to Walter Reed. Due to his liver shrapnel injury, he would get uremic poisoning. This poisoning would not clear up and ultimately this is what the doctors said, caused the gangrene in his legs. His legs were amputated, and he was in and out of consciousness. I have heard people say that his legs were amputated because the tourniquets were put on too tight by the medics. I don’t believe that is true. There are a ton of myths and stories about Sean and I that have circulated and most of them are wrong. Sean was in and out of comas at Walter Reed. He was transferred to the Fayetteville VA Hospital. Sean would not regain consciousness and passed away there.”

The Aftermath

Harry Shaw: “Some days are indelibly burned into your memory. For me, one of those days is June 30th. That day is the day that Sergeant Sean Luketina died. I did not know Sean before Operation Urgent Fury but, there has not been a day that has passed that I have not thought of him. Sean and I were wounded side by side in the misdirected air strike that took my legs. Sean was evacuated immediately as it was determined that he had the best chance of surviving. Me? If you ask Jean-luc, CPT Nash, he will tell you that they really didn’t know where to start. I was a perfect mess. It was a month later that Sean went into the coma. He was suffering from uremic poisoning and it was during the operation that the doctors at Walter Reed removed his legs that he went into the coma from which he would never awake. It was shortly after that that I got a letter from his mother. She told me about her son who had also lost his legs. She was looking for answers. She did not know that Sean and I had been shot in the same incident. I am not sure she found comfort in the truth that I wrote her. I can only hope that she did. I visited Sean’s grave in Arlington in 1994 on the tenth anniversary of his death. I did not know that his mother had chosen to be buried with her son. It was a touching display of motherly devotion and this site on the green fields of Arlington haunts me to this day: He died one-day shy of his 24th birthday.”

Closing comments

Harry Shaw; “Losing a limb(s) is not the worst pain that you can experience. The most painful thing that a human being can experience is the feeling of regret. To regret that you did not do something when you know you should have/could have/ought-to-have is far more painful than merely losing a piece of one’s anatomy. I sincerely mean this with the utmost of conviction. On May 24, 2010 I began the process of learning to walk again—roughly 26 ½ years after having lost both of my legs above the knee that day in Grenada. I owe my very existence to a great many courageous and talented people who refused to give up on me even when the chance at survival was at its most grim. So here I am, caught in the past with what has been and on the threshold of the future of what will be.”harry shaw

Rock Schmidt; “As the Alpha Company Commander, I considered it an honor to be commanding the Assault CP, Division Main, Division Rear, and other dispersed Signal assets up and down the street. I was assigning our best Signal men and women throughout the Division to ensure we had good people at Division Staff ADSO, the separate Battalions, and as Regimental SIGOs. On special missions, Assault missions, readiness exercises, we also provided two or three TACSAT operators for Division Readiness Regiments. These men were the best comms operators the Signal Battalion had. Providing these services during Grenada, we were providing a Division level asset, the TACSAT, to commanders deployed downrange. One of those key assets was Sean Luketina. Sean was the man we assigned to the 2nd Brigade deployed to Grenada. Sean was located at the 2nd Brigade TOC when it was hit by friendly fire of a Combat close-air support, Navy A-7. It was a shock to all of us when we got the news that Sean had been hit. I personally notified his mother of his injuries and status. She took it hard. I was able to comfort her in her time of need. Sean was evacuated to the off-shore ship hospital and later transferred to Walter Reed hospital. It would appear he was on his way to recovery. I visited him at Walter Reed and got to know both his parents and family. I made a connection with the family during my time as his company commander when he was in the hospital. He was getting well enough that they transferred him down to the Fayetteville area VA hospital. In was in this location that his situation started to degrade until it led to an infection that led to his death. Sean’s sacrifice and his passing had a deep impact on me. I was his Commander and felt responsible for what happened to him. There was no escaping the guilt. The family later called upon me to conduct Sean’s eulogy and speak at his funeral and memorial. It was my honor to do this on behalf of the Battalion and Sean’s family. At the time of his passing I was not in the Battalion and had moved over to JCU, to lead those soldiers. We also collected money from the officers and soldiers and donated a plaque for him and placed it on the Battalion headquarters as a memorial of his service.”

John William Lyga; “Sean and I got to Radio Plt. in 81. I was one of the cherries. Sean was probably one of the most outspoken to say the least but was very good at his job. When operation Urgent Fury began Sean and I were deployed as a radio team. We thought at first it was just another exercise until we got to green ramp and they issued us ammo. We looked at each other and said, holy shit, this one is for real. We spent the next few days together. We did not sleep that whole time. I talked with him more in those few days than we ever had. Anybody who knew Sean, knew that this was what he lived for, and on this deployment, we would be able to finally use everything we had learned over the years in a real-world situation. I had just walked out of the building that we were setting up for our HQs. Sean was taking the first shift. That was when the building got hit. I never got to see Sean in the hospital. I regret never making the time to go see him. I finally visited his grave at Arlington and thought to myself that this is where he would want his final resting place to be. He is probably in heaven giving all the new guys a hard time.”

Jay DeFillipo; “I got to Radio Plt in July 83 as a radio operator (05B). Coleman was the Platoon Sgt and Rock Schmidt was the Company Commander with Paul Niles as the 1SG. Guys like Dave Carter, Lowell Kennedy, Keith Sledd, Rivera, and Luketina made up the platoon during that period. What a great time to be a soldier. 27 years ago, was a long time ago but I still remember the first time I met Sean. After the typical cherry ritual Sean became a great mentor to me. I recall the day he spent teaching me the tricks of the TACSAT and some of the other radios we used. He trained me up on the HF manpack (104). The radio that I would ultimately take into Grenada. I only knew Sean for a few months but that was long enough to call him friend, mentor and leader. I visited his grave for the first-time last year. It brought back memories, good and bad. “

A related newspaper article; Two students rescued during the Grenada Operation Urgent Fury visited Sean Luketina in the hospital. Sean couldn’t talk because of a tube in his throat. But when the students visited, “he knew who they were,” said his father, Robin Luketina. Dennis W. Sheridan, 23, of Glen Head, N.Y., and Robert Shapiro, 23, of Butler, Pa., said they visited Luketina for just a few minutes. “I spoke with Sean’s father and tried to express my feelings,” said Sheridan, who was in his third semester at St. George’s University School of Medicine in Grenada. “…my life and medical career will reflect Sean and all the men like him and his sacrifice. I would hope that anything I achieve in my medical profession I would be able to reflect on this sacrifice. We didn’t talk to the Sergeant because of his condition, Shapiro said. “We met his father and there was really nothing I could say. I hugged his father and I just felt terrible, really overwhelmed. “

From the author; As I was researching Sean Luketina and how he died I uncovered this better, deeper story. As I was researching I found a lot of stories, myth, and rumors surrounding Sean and how he was hit and how he died, and I was determined to set the story straight. To do that I got online and started digging. There are a ton of articles and stories that are dead wrong! My first find was Harry Shaw and his personal blogs. I learned that Harry was side by side with Sean when they were in the 2nd Brigade TOC when it was hit by friendly fire. I also found comments from his buddies in the Assault CP platoon who worked with Sean on a day to day basis and deployed with him to Grenada. At All American week I also talked with and interviewed, Colonel Rock Schmidt. Col Schmidt was Sean’s company commander during Grenada, notified his family when he was injured, visited Sean in the hospital, and ultimately delivered Sean’s Eulogy graveside. I also interviewed with Blake Nelson. Blake was an Assault CP trooper that deployed to Grenada AND was assigned as the ANGLICO RTO. The ANGLICO liaison officer was the one that called in the close air support that resulted in the TOC getting hit. Powerful stuff! After hearing these stories, I was determined to get this article 100% correct. Sean, Harry, Blake, and all the other soldiers hit during this incident deserve that. The truth. One of the comments I heard that resonated with me sharply was from one of his buddies in the Assault CP platoon, John Lyga. John commented, “Anybody who knew Sean, knew that this was what he lived for, and on this deployment, he would be able to finally use everything we had learned over the years, and apply them in a real-world situation.” I agree 100% with John. This is what we trained for and dreamed about the entire time we were assigned to the Battalion and the Assault Platoon. Sean lived it, and died with it, and he has our full respect. Sean is laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.