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People in Your Neighborhood: Meet military hero Charles Hartford of La Jolla

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If you only know Charles Hartford as a financial analyst at Merrill Lynch, wait until you read what he did on April 1, 2003.
(COREY LEVITAN)

PEOPLE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD:

Many La Jollans know Charles Hartford for the financial advice he provides them as a member of Merrill Lynch’s wealth-management team. Others know him as the president of the Rotary Club of La Jolla, where he has raised money for causes such as Bahamian hurricane relief and educational efforts in Tijuana.

But 16 years ago, Hartford was one of the heroes who saved Jessica Lynch. The U.S. Army private was a prisoner of war in Iraq, where her unit was ambushed on March 23, 2003.

Hartford, a member of the Army Rangers, was the ground-assault commander on the Joint Special Operations Task Force that launched a nighttime raid on Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah on April 1, 2003, rescuing Lynch and the buried bodies of eight other American soldiers.

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When you were kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

“When I was three, my mom took me to see Baryshnikov and I wanted to be a ballerina.”

What got in your way of that dream?

“Talent. Actually, I did not know what I wanted to be. In my high-school years, ‘Top Gun’ came out and I thought I wanted to be a Marine Corps test pilot.”

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Why did you choose the Army instead?

“West Point commissions mostly U.S. Army officers. Because I did not come from a military family and I had no idea how long I would stay in as an officer past my five-year obligation, I wanted to experience the tip of the spear and be a soldier.”

Was West Point your only option post high-school?

“I got into Stanford, but both my parents were high-school teachers and there was no way they could afford it. Honestly, though, my heart was set on attending a military academy. And I had never even visited West Point. I showed up sight-unseen in July after my senior year.”

Did you have a Plan B in case you didn’t stay in the Army after five years?

“I got into law school and was planning to go after I graduated West Point and completed my five-year obligation. But then one of my mentors there, Casey Brower — a brigadier general who taught in the history department and was Reagan’s military aid — asked if I wanted to go to graduate school and then come back and teach for a couple years.

So I stayed in the Army and went to Kentucky. I got two master’s degrees and a wife out of the deal. After I taught at West Point, I attended Command and General Staff College in Kansas. Our daughter was born while I was there. When 9/11 happened, I knew — because my unit was a special-operations unit — that I was gone. My unit was among the first to go to Afghanistan. I had five combat deployments there and to Iraq.”

You have four children, two of whom were alive back then. Leaving a family behind must be difficult when you serve.

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“Families serve and sacrifice, too. My daughter, it took her about six weeks, the last time I got back from a big deployment, to recognize who I was. It is hard leaving a family.”

Do you think you were as ready to die as you would have been without a family?

“I think it’s different for everyone. I can only speak from my own experience. I don’t know if I ever thought I’m not as willing or ready. But I know that just going downrange, you just know if it’s your day, it’s your day. I could have been killed many times. I got to a point where you just kind of become numb to the fact that you might not be breathing oxygen by the end of that day. I was in Eastern Afghanistan and there was a rocket launch on our compound. This guy in the middle of a field fired seven rockets into the compound. Six of them detonated, and the one that did not detonate landed about 50 yards away from me. If it did, I would be dust right now.”

Tell us about the rescue of Jessica Lynch.

“On March 29, 2003, I flew into Southern Iraq from Saudi Arabia, where I was doing combat missions on the Iraqi border, on an advance team to start getting things ready for the rest of the unit to come forward. I did a daylight reconnaissance to better figure out the best routes to get in to get Lynch. We found a route on the east side of the City, down the main street, and tailored this organization of more than 1,000 people — an air component, my ground component, special operators from all services and a unique convoy of vehicles. We made our way past a Marine Corp element that was there. I talked to a battalion commander. He said, ‘I’ve got a Catholic chaplain if you need him, hope you don’t, but I’m going to tell you, we’re not stepping foot in that city again.’

We knew (Lynch’s) last known location, we knew her blood type. We knew she had sustained a wound and was facing imminent amputation of a leg. We knew that her fellow soldiers had gotten lost, some of whom were killed. We also knew that 50 to 75 enemy had occupied the hospital as a headquarters of some sort before we got there. So I was part of the team to go in the middle of the night on April 1. And that launched all the other steps for us to go through. I was in an armored Humvee a few vehicles behind a tank, which had to get burning vehicles and other things out of the way. This was all before the word IED was even commonplace.”

Did you take fire?

“There was a lot of fire — actual fire and gunfire. My vehicle took direct fire as we entered the compound. It hit the window next to my head. Fortunately, it had an armor plate so it didn’t penetrate. But the Humvee was wide open in the back and I had a radio operator from Minneapolis. He was standing, trying to keep communications open with our commander, and I yelled at him to get down. The driver of my vehicle was a member of a very special Navy team. He was a little nervous and stalled my vehicle three times, and I remember just having a matter-of-fact sense of peace. I remember putting my hand on his shoulder and saying, ‘It’s going to be OK, just turn the vehicle back on.’

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Charles Hartford (top center) poses with members of the Joint Special Operations Task Force that raided Saddam Hospital in Iraq.
(COURTESY)
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Then we turned into the hospital compound and had about 30 minutes of a good firefight as we surrounded the compound. The rangers did their clearing of individual rooms, including the morgue, and there was a team that landed on the roof and they cleared from top down, knowing that was her last location. The enemy had cleared out, so there was no resistance inside the hospital. From the time we penetrated that hospital to the time Jessica Lynch was in my battalion surgeon’s hands was less than 36 minutes.

It was an amazingly successful operation, and we did it for one reason — not because of her gender, her race, her creed, her rank, her origin, her religion. None of that mattered. What mattered was that she was an American. We knew she was alive and we were going to put ourselves in harm’s way. What is awesome to me was that 1,000-plus put their lives in harm’s way because she was a fellow American.”

Did you meet Jessica at all — then or later?

“No. I followed her in the news, when she got her teaching credential and was teaching again, still walking with pain.”

She never even sent you a thank-you card?

“You know what? It’s the beauty, and some of the frustration, of our wonderful country that people can live the way they want.”

Do you consider yourself a hero?

“No. But I served with many. I think there was a made-for-TV movie about it. I never saw it, so I don’t know who played me. Hopefully, he was tall, thin and handsome.”

Do you have any regrets about your service?

“None.”

Do you suffer from PTSD?

“I think anybody who’s been in combat has some degree of having to deal with what some people now call a moral injury, where you’re in harm’s way and you’re looking at things that aren’t ordinary. I would be less than truthful if I said it doesn’t still affect me to some degree. That’ll happen in big and small ways, sometimes. I think everyone deals with what they’ve done, what they’ve seen and what they’ve experienced in some ways — some healthy and some less-than-healthy.”

Do your clients know about your role in history?

“Few know. I hope my clients know how much we care about them and about what is special and important to them. I believe that care comes from the same place and heart — a willingness to sacrifice and serve for others.”

Editor’s Note: La Jolla Light’s “People in Your Neighborhood” series shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about! If you know someone you’d like us to profile, call us at (858) 875-5950 or e-mail editor@lajollalight.com


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