Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Liberty's Spark

It’s sobering to realize that every year of your service someone in your community has died before their time. A crash in the landing pattern, a mishap during an airshow, a helo down in fog, a man sacrificing his own life to save his crew, the sickening report of a jet and her crew destroyed in a place you called home for four years.

And in the reflection, you realize that you had many a close scrape as well. The too-fast rendezvous through clouds in flight school, the screaming power call from the LSO as your plane crossed the carrier deck in stifling darkness, the discharge of static electricity between probe and basket with aviation fuel passing between them in the midst of a thunderstorm. Then again, the government does pay us $206 a month extra to fly. So we have that going for us.

This is an inherently dangerous profession. I don’t think anybody signs up not knowing that. In the first week of ground school, the instructors show video after video of airplane crashes. In one, a C-2 launches off a carrier, pitches severely nose up, stalls and plummets backwards into the sea. A strap was incorrectly secured, causing a rapid change in the center of gravity during the acceleration of a catapult launch. In another, a helo gets tangled in the nets around the landing area on the back of a destroyer, tipping over violently, sending rotor parts shooting in every direction.

Some people quit then and there, but most seem to take perverse pleasure in what they are about to undertake. Danger – the allure of young men (and increasingly women) throughout the ages.

Yet, there has to be something else driving volunteers from across the country, from every conceivable background and ethnic group, to sign up for something like aviation in particular, and the military in general. Someplace, somewhere, they were inspired. Inspired to such a degree that they put everything else aside, the rest of their life on hold, to venture forth into the unknown.

For some it is the faded picture of an unrecognizably young grandfather as he trundles off to war in the 1940s. For others, they just felt a compulsion to serve. Many merely need the money and discipline. Most could probably cite a combination of all three.

Inspiration is one of those things our society pays lip service to, but doesn’t always understand the true depth of. It doesn’t fully grasp the commitment required to see that spark of understanding through to a fulfilling conclusion. Initial conditions are important, but hardly sufficient for long term success. It takes something more, something greater than one’s self to bring true understanding to this process.

There is a place in the far southwestern corner of the United States that holds this depth in full focus. Here, you overlook a vista of magnificent glory; the shimmering Pacific below the cliffs to your right, a harbor full of sailboats to your left. Great men and women, heroes, surround you. Marble stones are lined up row upon endless row, some brothers long departed, others too recently. Old Glory whips in the brisk wind while you gaze out at the sinking orange sun, wondering.

Wondering who these people were. What that space between the two engraved dates really meant. Love, pain, tragedy, joy. But of course, you cannot know.

Inscribed are their travels – Rear Admirals in Korea mixed among Bos’ns mates from the Great War. A corporal here, a Colonel there. Many aged, long widowed wives buried beside. And the less faded stones with sharp black letters precisely carved – these men are much less aged, with desert countries conspicuously chiseled. Now among generations who were soldiers once, and young, too.

Yet even with the names right in front of you, there is a sense of anonymity for those resting. The egalitarian headstones for the lowest private to the oldest Admiral lets them forever be part of cooperative things like the Big Red One or the Wasp or the Third Marine Air Wing. These entities have known, even famous, histories, but the individual names of those who made them work have long faded from collective memory. And this is good. For the entity they all really sought to advance was that of America herself.

Ironically, a nation of individual liberties only thrives when some submit to collective direction. A desire to forgo personal glory for the advancement of a team. We know not the names of those charged with killing our most wanted enemy, but this only enhances their prestige. We give entertainment awards to actors we can readily name who portray the heroism of those we cannot. In a way, those gaining individual glory have received their rewards, but nothing more – those who carry on anonymously have their reward in the ongoing success of America and her ideals.

I have heard some complain that our society can name the highest paid baseball player, but not our last Medal of Honor winner. I can’t help but think this is an asset. It shows that there are men and women willing to save a friend or charge a hill not because it will bring them honor, but because it is the right thing to do.

We all know someone got the Medal of Honor, and we all know what that represents. That is enough, as men will only charge into the battlefields freedom requires when they know the buddy next to them will be there in their moment of most dire need. They need to believe heroes can be found among their peers. And the litany of past examples that swell our nation’s military cemeteries show that this belief is well founded.

Thus, generations past hold the key to our continued existence as a nation. Their experiences and examples are the kindling that perpetuates the spark of inspiration that keep the ramparts of liberty and freedom well manned.

Many have already watered the tree of liberty with their blood, and many more will as well in the years and decades to come. It is right and honorable that we remember those who sacrificed on our behalf. But we must also not forget to carry on the work which they so ably fought and died for. It is work well worth the effort.


Originally Published May 29th 2009

Lord, guard and guide the men who fly
Through the great spaces in the sky,
Be with them always in the air,
In dark'ning storms or sunlight fair.
O, Hear us when we lift our prayer,
For those in peril in the air.

As with everything on a warship, we make do with the accommodations available. No Flanders Fields, or windswept bluffs overlooking oceans; merely the cold hard steel of a plated floor. Aircraft pushed to ends of the hangar bay, naked engines free of their nacelles. The space in the center cleared for the memorial that will soon begin.

Standing amidships, back facing starboard, front to port, a massive American flag hangs to the left, covering the entire three story height of the cavernous bay. To the right is a similarly sized blue fielded ensign with the circular emblem of the USS Nimitz. A stage stands, austerely in the center: no chairs, simple lectern, faded and grease smudged bunting covering the legs of the raised platform. Off behind the assembling crowd on the massive floor of Elevator Two are seven men holding rifles, adorned in black uniforms, set against a dull, overcast Southern California morning.

And next to the stage, five distinct pictures with smiling young faces. In front of three of the pictures, the Dixie Cup hat of the enlisted sailor on top of a folded American flag. The other two with white officer’s covers – one male and one female – on top of the same triangular starred cloth. All the images look playful, and full of joy, as only youth can exude even during excruciating trials. But these pictures are not taken in times of trial – they appear in flight suits, confident, at ease within the machines they daily took to touch the face of God. They are aviators, now meeting Him sooner than they could ever have imagined. Their beaming faces are surreal amidst the mourning and sorrow.

On the evening of May 19th, a cadre of Carrier Air Wing Eleven aircraft took off from the USS Nimitz for a training mission into Western Arizona. They successfully completed their objective and picked up two aviators who were simulating downed pilots in the midst of a hostile environment. The two helicopters involved in the rescue stopped over at a nearby Naval Air Station before the trek back to the Nimitz. One of the newest members of our squadron was one of the aircrew picked up during the rescue; he was returning in the lead helicopter.

At around 11:00pm, mere minutes off the coast of Coronado Island, he looked back at the second helicopter that had been faithfully following them and saw…nothing. Nothing was heard, and immediately the pilot of the lead aircraft began to conduct a real search and rescue operation. They didn’t find anything; there was nothing they could do.

I was on the last recovery that evening, and had just taken off my flight gear when I walked into the ready room, mentally deconstructing my first night battle with the dreaded KC-135 tanking hose (wistfully known as the “Iron Maiden”). This was quickly forgotten as our skipper and executive officer came running through with slightly frantic, yet determined looks on their faces. All I heard was “a plane is in the water.” Immediately, my eyes went to the computer screen that showed the status of all airborne aircraft, and for a moment I became incredibly confused as it showed all planes safe on deck – I was one of the last to land. Until I caught the last two lines showing the helicopters. At the time, we didn’t know any details, and that aforementioned newest member was still unaccounted for. I felt sick to my stomach.

It was the beginning of a long night. We felt the ship shudder as she tore through the water towards the suspected location of our downed compatriots. Those of us in the Delta House stateroom aimlessly and somewhat airily chatted, shaken by what had just occurred. Our fellow Black Ace was back safely by this point, but two of our airwing pilots and their three enlisted aircrew were still gone.

Its one thing to walk through our scattered national cemeteries and in quiet awe take in the expanse of marble headstones that represent those who have paid for liberty with their blood. To absorb the black granite near Lincoln’s monastery, or look in the forlorn faces of the Korean statues as they perpetually make their way through another frigid mountain night. The names that accompany the anonymity of those sacred locations help bring those sacrifices to life – but mostly they are as foreign as the places they died. Even seeing my grandfather’s headstone at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery, who I never had the chance to meet, is somewhat impersonal.

But there is something quite different to know some of those names now. To have spent countless hours planning missions side by side with them in exercises past, to have seen them smile in cordial greeting as we passed in the cramped hallways of our ship. We in modern aviation are fortunate that we have so few deaths as compared with wars past. As recently as Vietnam, some squadrons came back from deployment with none of the jets they left with – all having been destroyed in the midst of combat and replaced mid-cruise with newer versions. Yet, ironically, the very infrequency of these present tragedies makes them all the more conspicuous.

This remains the same though: Sometimes there isn’t the ability to mourn immediately. We followed the mishap with three more days of intense flight ops to complete our qualifications to be certified for our upcoming deployment. As with countless other warriors in countless ages past, the mission had to be accomplished until a time for grief was allowed. There is cathartic release in doing those things you know you can control in the midst of those you cannot, and for Type-A personalities, keeping busy is sometimes the best medicine.

On Saturday, we stood in massed formation as the ceremony proceeded. The invocation, followed by a singing of the Navy Hymn and then brief biographies of the deceased. Allison, a rare woman who brought the calmness and intoxicating aura of femininity to our mostly male profession, was getting married in late June. Samuel, a rescue swimmer, had a three year old, a one year old – and on Thursday his wife found out she was pregnant with their third. The others with young children and now widowed wives, save the young man who was three months shy of his twenty-first birthday.

These details were a reminder that despite all of our focus on mission success and the upcoming time away, the most important thing has always been and remains family.

We heard from their friends, and then saluted in unison to the haunting rendition of taps as tears welled up in the eyes of those assembled. Finally, hundreds of us simultaneously turned around to face the open sea and hear the seven riflemen fire three times each. We were dismissed into the most pervasive silence I’ve ever experienced aboard this ship of six thousand people and nearly incessant clamor. By the end though, the healing had taken hold.

As our generation of warriors nears its eighth continuous year of war (truth be told, many of us don’t know what its like to be in a peacetime military), the signs back at home are fading that the conflict is ongoing. This is a good thing -- it means that the horrors of this all too frequent of human endeavors are being relegated to the locations of our choosing. But it also means there remain men and women who are still in far off places, some of whom lose their lives in the service of their country.

On this Memorial Day, whether we are on a pristine beach barbecuing with our loved ones and friends or deployed amidst sand, stone or steel, it is appropriate to remember those who have allowed us to enjoy what we often take for granted. And to take a moment to pray for those still with us.

Eternal Father, Strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bid'st the mighty Ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to thee,
for those in peril on the sea.