Good Life

Former naval flight surgeon receives heroism award 40 years late

Dr. Ed Dench was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for working in extraordinary circumstances to render aid to a Marine. Though he was told in 1976 that he’d been recommended for the medal, he just recently received it.
Dr. Ed Dench was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for working in extraordinary circumstances to render aid to a Marine. Though he was told in 1976 that he’d been recommended for the medal, he just recently received it. knetzer@centredaily.com

Better late than never.

It’s a handy little expression, the optimist’s take on tardiness, made popular thanks to a broad utility spanning any number of unfortunate and yet all too familiar scenarios.

Overslept? Better late than never. Forgot to file that report? Better late than never. Christmas lights still up in August? Better late than — well, honestly, at that juncture it’s better to just let it ride through to the holidays.

Anyway, the point is that sometimes these things are best taken in good cheer — and for a man who has waited nearly 40 years to receive his Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Dr. Edward Dench is downright sprightly.

“Awards are not just for me. They are to instill pride and hopefully inspire others to do those kinds of acts,” Dench said.

The trick of it is probably in knowing how to keep things in perspective.

For example, four decades and more than a little red tape pales in comparison to dangling from a helicopter hovering precariously close to the edge of a cliff, which in turn overlooks an approximately 4,000-foot drop into the scenic waters of Hawaii.

Awards are not just for me. They are to instill pride and hopefully inspire others to do those kinds of acts.

Dr. Edward Dench

The year was 1976, and a then Lt. Cmdr. Dench was attempting to rescue a Marine corporal who had slipped and fallen 200 feet down the cliffs of the Kalalau Valley. The Marine had landed on a ledge with a 70-degree slope, meaning that it was dry land and not water that broke his fall — and his back — by a very narrow margin.

By the time a rescue mission was mobilized, Dench’s patient had already been waiting for three hours in the hot Hawaiian sun.

It was a situation fraught with complications. The helicopter was unable to land and could only angle down so far without the blades striking the side of the cliff and sending the chopper into a tailspin.

Somebody was going to have to tether down to solid ground, where they could tend to the injured, immobile Marine.

And Dench had specifically promised his then wife that he wouldn’t do anything stupid before leaving home that day.

In the end, it was an easy decision.

“All I cared about and all I knew was that he was going to die and that I had a chance to save him,” Dench said.

Dench spent nearly 5 hours down on the ledge, applying splints, intravenous fluid and basic first aid.

“I was getting dehydrated,” Dench said.

He loaded the corporal into a rescue basket and dragged him 30 yards across the ledge into position for the helicopter.

Once they successfully returned to base, two things happened: Dench vomited for 10 minutes against the side of an airplane, and a naval captain approached with the news that the good doctor had been recommended for the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.

The honor is the highest non-combat decoration awarded for heroism — and for nearly 40 years, that was the last that Dench heard about it.

Today, he is a practicing anesthesiologist at Clearfield Hospital and also performs Federal Aviation Administration medical exams on pilots from his home office in State College.

They are valued opportunities for Dench, who has spent the better part of the past 54 years with his feet off of the ground, to talk shop.

All I cared about and all I knew was that he was going to die and that I had a chance to save him.

Dr. Edward Dench

The doctor has a Piper Aztec twin engine that he bought in 1988 that has since touched down at airports in Las Vegas, San Antonio and Florida.

Dench’s passion for the skies provides him with insight into his patients that goes beyond the medical. He knows that a pilot will say or do anything to stay in the air.

“If you haven’t been a pilot, it’s very hard to get into the mentality of a pilot,” Dench said.

It was one of the pilots he was examining who eventually referred Dench to a website that listed past recipients of the Navy and Marine Corps Medal — and sure enough, his name was listed under 1976.

Dench contacted the office of U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, and after nearly four decades, he is finally scheduled to be officially presented with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal on April 14 by the commanding officer at the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sands in Kauai County, HI.

“My office was effective in working with the Navy to ensure that Dr. Dench would receive his accommodation, even if it is now 40 years later. This medal will serve as a reminder of his service to a fellow crewman in a time of need and his steadfast service to our great nation,” Thompson said.

Either way, the occasion will at least provide a new ending to an old story.

“I used to tell people that I was nominated because that’s the only thing I could say,” Dench said.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

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