MIDLOTHIAN, TX — When Navy Hospital Corpsman First Class Robert Cato’s Black Hawk helicopter went down, his first thoughts were not of the Iraqi insurgents, who were most assuredly searching for him, but of his child. “We were flying over the north side of the Iraq and Iran border,” Robert explained. “You have to understand that the enemy was very good at what they did. At the time, Black Hawks were not equipped with flares to ward off heat-seeking missiles. The windshields couldn’t stop a bullet, and the Iraqi soldiers got good at killing our pilots.”
Though trained with the U.S. Navy, the Army needed a qualified medic for air search and rescue missions. Robert had enlisted in 1995, training in Pensacola for untold hours in the sea, on ground and in the air for every imaginable scenario. But nothing could prepare him for the sound in his pilot’s voice as he heard, “Brace for impact.” As Robert described it, “It was in slow motion and at the speed of light at the same time.”
Three months after that tragic accident, Robert again volunteered to join another military unit in need of an air medic, leaving many to wonder why he was so eager to go back. For Robert, the answer is easy, but the reason is difficult.
When Robert was a sophomore at Midlothian High School, he was involved in a different kind of accident. “It was September 1993,” he said, “and I was involved in an auto accident where I struck a seven-month pregnant woman, and her unborn baby ended up dying. All I could do was just stand there and stare himself doing things he never thought possible. He became one of the best at removing bullets from soldiers, while under gunfire and en route to a military base. He ran into streets, while dodging bullets, to drag back a fallen comrade to start an IV while under assault from rocket- propelled grenades.
But it was when Robert went back to Iraq to fly with a battalion of Marines that he expanded his résumé from flight “Doc” to tail gunner. “This time our primary job was to control the Iranian border to
keep smugglers from bringing weapons in for the enemy,” he explained. Robert was logging more than 16 hours a day, six days a week, “and I got very good, as a noncombatant, at using a 50-caliber machine gun at the rear of the large assault helicopter and hitting my target.”
Under the Geneva Convention Code, a medic is not to bring harm to another person. “But these are different times,” Robert said somberly. “We were constantly under fire, and the enemy was getting smarter and smarter about the shoulder-mounted rockets.” He went on to explain that he rode in the military’s largest helicopter, the MH-53. “It’s big and loud. There’s no hiding it.”
During Robert’s second helicopter crash, the pilots were able to maintain control, despite a hit to the tail. While he reportedly felt a numb sensation in his elbow, an injury that would later prove to be quite significant, Robert once again counted himself lucky and continued to volunteer.
“One of my dearest friends from Midlothian, Lyle Gordon, was a pilot killed in Iraq in January 2005. He was a captain in the Marines. I felt privileged to be part of what he had been doing and, in a sense, helped complete his mission.”
But in 2009, Robert conceded. “I had tempted fate enough.” It was time for Hospital Corpsman First Class Robert Cato to come home, “be with my kids and be a father to them.”
The irony is that his final deployment was not in the air, but on the ground. “Our unit wasn’t involved in daily combat. We weren’t tasked with looking or the enemy but were to provide escort to high-ranking officials or injured soldiers,” Robert explained. Still, the well- traveled roads were littered with IEDs (improvised explosive devises) that were hidden in dead dogs, potholes or random mounds of dirt. Unlike the other crashes when Robert had warning, he never saw this coming, and it was the most devastating to him and his crew.
While Robert has been credited for saving countless lives and has been given awards for bravery and valor, his body is racked with permanent injury and devastating images that forever haunt him. After 16 years with the Navy, he was declared medically retired. “They had no use for an old, broke down man anymore,” he joked.
Robert returned to Midlothian with his family, declaring, “I’m just a small- town boy,” but he is so much more.
He is a stay-at-home father, football coach, husband and a music and sports enthusiast, thanks to his seven children, ranging in ages from 1 to 16. Today, he is focused on his most important role
as father. “But I have a five-year plan,” Robert said of his goal to earn a nursing degree. “When our youngest starts school, I want to go back to work as
Written by Alex Allred.