John “Sean” Powers just wants to help people and doesn’t like to take no for an answer. Thus he has lived a life of service that has included stints in the Army and the New York City Police Department. He will share his thoughts on service to others as the keynote speaker for Wilton’s Memorial Day parade, Monday, May 27. He will speak at the remembrance ceremony at Hillside Cemetery.
Growing up in Port Chester, N.Y., near the Westchester County Airport, Powers always knew he wanted to fly. To attain that dream, at 19 in 1982, he quit college and enlisted in the Army with the intention of going to flight school.
“I was fascinated with helicopters,” he told The Bulletin during an interview. He found an Army program that said, “if you pass this test, we will put you into helicopters without a college degree,” he said. He passed and the Army did.
“My first time flying I had an old-timer for an instructor,” he said, referring to the retired military man. “I’m looking around and he said, ‘first time?’ and then he started laughing. We had an absolute blast.” Powers said he barely fit into the tiny TH55 craft.
“It was a little two-seater.” At 6’2”, “I took up a lot of room.”
Powers served in the 1980s during a period of unrest in Central America. As a warrant officer he flew in DT2/9 2nd of the 9th Cavalry — the Army’s air cavalry. He flew a War Eagle II helicopter as part of Joint Task Force Bravo in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
“When the Nicaraguans came into Honduras in conflict with the Contras,” he said, he helped support troops in training, embassies, wherever he was needed.
“I flew [Salvadoran President Jose] Duarte from El Salvador to the USS Iowa,” he said. With another piliot, he was assigned to the head of the Guatemalan army.
When he returned stateside, Powers flew Medevac helicopters at Fort Stewart Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia. He was on call for training accidents, vehicle accidents and to support the local community, which is how one of his most memorable missions occurred.
“There was a young kid who thought he was throwing water onto a barbecue, but it turned out to be a flammable material,” Powers recalled. “He burned himself dramatically — it got into his lungs.”
To make matters worse, the weather was terrible. They got the boy into the helicopter and took off.
“A sergeant was able to intubate him while we were getting pounded by a thunderstorm,” Powers said. “We flew in the clouds on instruments.” The weather was so bad, “I had to make two approaches. I had to land on an airfield because I couldn’t see the hospital that was ‘right there.’” Happily, the boy survived.
During six years in active duty and seven in the reserve, Powers racked up 7,000 flight hours.
“Helicopters are designed for someone who’s 5’9”,” he said. “With night-vision goggles and a weight on my back for counterbalance,” he had to crouch down a lot and that took a toll on him physically. It was time for something else, but Powers stubbornly did not want to give up flying.
“I took the police test in the Army,” he said, adding that when he left the service he worked for a charter company. He flew businessmen, news reporters and tourists.
“I missed the excitement of flying in the Army and I wanted to do something to contribute. I always had that sense of service, so I could say I made somebody’s life better,” he said.
He joined the NYPD, serving in a way he had not expected — working a beat in community policing where he was embraced by the residents of 62nd to 65th streets betwee Third Avenue and the East River.
Eventually, he applied for and was accepted to the Manhattan North Response Team where he could put his Spanish-language skills to work.
“It was the first time I was told to grow my hair,” he said with a laugh.
On duty during the mid-90s, he grabbed his old Army field coat and went out when a call came to assist two officers involved in a fight on upper Broadway.
“I jumped out of the car and brought the guy down and got him cuffed. Then I went into the median and was drinking hot chocolate. A kid came by and put change in my cup.” The military jacket, he said, helped him blend into the community.
“We made tons of arrests, dealing with the worst of the worst from 59th Street to Spuyten Duyvil,” he said, before he got picked for the police aviation unit. He finished out his career chasing suspects and performing air/sea rescues before retiring in 2005.
While Powers joined the police force to continue flying, he soon found another mission — that of helping fellow officers. The mid-90s was a dark time for police, with suicides on the rise. He got involved in POPPA — Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance — which was formed in 1996 in response to 26 NYPD suicides that occurred that year and the year before.
“Cops are very close to the vest, they don’t give up their stuff too easily,” Powers said. “That’s the reason they had so many suicides. Going for help would have been on paper.”
During Fleet Week of 2001, Powers met up with members of the American Legion post in lower Manhattan. Then, when he was working in “the pit” after 9/11, he got a call from an admiral asking what they needed. Powers told him gloves and masks.
“A few hours later I was told to go to the front gate [of the station] and a box truck was there packed with gloves and masks and everything you could imagine.” A note said “from your brothers and sisters of the American Legion. Do well.”
He joined the post, which is now based at the Intrepid Museum, and now retired from the police force he is very involved on a national level with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury). He works to organize peer-to-peer counseling for veterans that’s confidential. He still continues with POPPA.
“It’s all volunteer work. You walk away and get a really good feeling.”
When he was setting up counseling for veterans he thought he’d be helping younger people. “But the majority were from Vietnam,” he said. “When they came back, they had jobs, family, mortgage, kids — they had a strict purpose in life. Now they’re retiring, the kids have their own families and the demons are walking in.”
“Twenty-two veterans a day commit suicide,” Powers said. “I’m a tiny grain of sand on a humongous beach, but if I can save one grain of sand …”