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.
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