Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends – John 15:13 (KJV)
There are very few instances in life where a person is truly presented with the philosopher’s favorite hypothetical: when faced with preserving your own life or those of others, whom do you choose?
For some though, in a matter of moments, this sophistic exercise becomes reality.
Returning home from a mission, mere miles away from the aircraft carrier, an engine indicates an oil problem. The aircrew executes their procedures and shuts the engine down, leaving them with one engine remaining. However, rather than the now static propeller feathering into the wind, minimizing drag and allowing for a much practiced single-engine approach, the prop inexplicably and unexpectedly locks in place. Instead of eight aerodynamic blades cleanly slicing through the air, the locked position becomes the airborne equivalent of a circular brick wall pushing full against the airstream.
The plane yaws uncontrollably into the failed starboard engine, and only through the herculean effort of the pilot-in-command, putting his whole strength against the opposite rudder pedal, is controlled flight precariously maintained. Momentarily. The aircraft cannot maintain its altitude. It is only a matter of time before it impacts the water. A choice must be made.
Before every flight, the pilot-in-command of a naval aircraft signs his name on a slip of paper kept within the aircraft maintenance log. It is the last of three signatures required before a plane is taken airborne. The first two are from the maintainers certifying that the plane is safe for flight. The last transfers responsibility for the aircraft to the pilot, meaning he is now accountable for the machine and aircrew within its confines. A mere formality on most days, especially when done in haste and hundreds of times previously, it nonetheless is something not soon forgotten.
We live in a society where occasionally those we are meant to admire abridge their obligations to accountability. Candidates for office falsely claiming membership in the combat ranks, elected officials blaming past leaders for events occurring on their watch, business tycoons refusing to acknowledge their complicity in financial collapse or environmental disaster. Such nonsense has no place in a stricken aircraft.
The pilot-in-command that day (March 31, 2010) was LT Steven “Abrek” Zilberman, a veteran Naval Aviator on his second combat cruise in as many years. His parents emigrated from Ukraine when he was in sixth grade, in part to escape the bigotry they feared he would face as a Jewish conscript in the Russian military. Much to their surprise, he chose to enlist in the US Navy, eventually winning his commission and Wings of Gold. As is the tradition in this brotherhood, Abrek was his bequeathed callsign, in reference to the first space monkey sent into space by the Russians prior to Yuri Garagin. Ironically, and probably unknown to the American aviators at the time, it also means “valiant man” in Russian.
At some point, he made the decision to stay in the cockpit, fighting with all his strength to keep the aircraft relatively stable so his three fellow crewmates could bail out. This meant almost certain death – when it came time for him to bail out, the autopilot would be unable to account for the drag-induced uncontrollable yaw, and his only hope for survival would be an incredibly risky ditch into the sea. For a few days, he was listed as missing. The search came up empty handed. For his gallantry, Abrek was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross alongside the folded flag given to his wife at the funeral.
To paraphrase Sebastian Junger, author of WAR, warriors know they may face death. When they pledge their oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, they face that fact. This conscious, voluntary effort is their greatest act of courage, already accomplished. All subsequent acts in the line of duty stem from this. Some, however, are more conspicuous than others.
Perhaps the reason we humans view such heroes so reverently is that they did not intend to seek out recognition. They do not wake up in the morning hoping to die, save others and get glory. Instead, Fate, Providence, luck, whatever you want to call it, is the initiating force behind many acts of courage. That split second decision to take action, sometimes a reaction honed from years of subtle practice and thoughts, is where the individual takes the yolk from fate and forcibly alters the outcome. Yet inimical to this heroism is the tragedy associated with any sacrifice. It is a cost not readily borne, but on occasion selflessly accepted.
The paradox of the horrors of war and the character of the men and women who fight them is stunning. Within the depravity, death and destruction of combat exists the characteristics of awe-inspiring traits most humans struggle to emulate in more peaceful moments. These acts, demonstrated both consciously and unconsciously, are often removed from the greater political stratagems and goals of the fought-for country, and instead are directed towards preserving others. On the fields of Shiloh, men braving volleys of bullets to drag a wounded compatriot to safety. Amidst the Sands of Iwo Jima, Marines storming heavily fortified machine gun nests to ensure their buddies in subsequent waves would be safer. In the prisons of Hanoi, aviators forming a self-contained society dedicated to resisting the propaganda, torture and special favors of their captors – while being isolated and beaten for years on end as their countrymen ignored their plight.
In the face of the greatest hardships, we find the hardiest souls and amidst the arrows of stinging hatred, the greatest love. Again, Junger: “The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire…What the Army sociologists slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.”
Today, while remembering the heroic tragedy that surrounded this sacrifice, there is the legacy that remains alongside the countless others that are spread throughout our military traditions. The reminder is in more than the places of honor we bury our military dead – it is around us every day. The strangers and friends descended from ancestors saved through selfless sacrifice generations ago. The men and women still fighting abroad against those who would do our country harm. But most significantly, the very society and country we find ourselves blessed to be counted citizen among.
The likes of Abrek and his fallen brethren gave their lives for their immediate friends and compatriots, but their collective acts are the reason for the joy we feel on a warm summer afternoon, surrounded by majestic hills, dedicated friends and the freedom to live our lives as we see fit. “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”
Our future, full of hope and possibility, is the lasting gift we Americans continue to receive from those destined never to see it.
Happy Memorial Day, and God Bless.
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