A Moment In Time – Service, Sacrifice, Honor

September 13, 2012 — 5 Comments

U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, information management officer Sean Smith and security personnel Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were murdered in Libya this week. They died in the service of their country.

Cimitero Americano dei Falciani (Firenze)

The tragedy of such virulent hatred is that wives will live on without husbands, children will grow up without fathers and promise will be buried.

The sacrifice of these men, like so many others, is the lifeblood of this nation. I honor their memory––noble patriots who gave their lives knowing the risks.

I’d like to tell you of one such patriot.

*****

The hallway of the guest quarters is nondescript. It’s early evening and I’m walking back to my room after dinner when I pass an open door. Inside is my buddy Tom. He’s on his bed, a Bible in hand; he waves me into his room. At the time, we were both young Marine officers up to our eyeballs in training, learning to fly the AV8 Harrier. This vertical take-off and land jet fighter was quickly earning an ignominious reputation as a widow maker due to the number of pilots killed while flying it.

I grab a chair and we talk for a while about this and that.

Tom eventually asks, “Did you hear about my down?” Tom had stability difficulties that day while hovering. He couldn’t hold the jet steady and was nervously manhandling the controls.

“I did. It happens. When’s your re-fly?” I said.

“Tomorrow morning.”

“We wouldn’t be here unless we were the best, right?” Banality was all I could muster.

“So I’m told,” he said. I could see he was holding something back.

Tom was an Annapolis graduate, newly married with a child on the way. He told me as far back as he could remember that he wanted to go to the Naval Academy, become a Marine and fly jets. Here he was, fortunate to be living his dream. One problem, he told me, was his wife. She hated the Harrier, feared for his life and wanted him to drop out of the program. He didn’t know what to do. Quitting would be a lousy career move but then again, the jet was a handful.

“I gotta tell you,” he continued, “I’m scared to death.”

I don’t recall exactly what I said, most likely hang in there, you can do it, etc. I’m fairly certain I wasn’t dismissive of his fears but I don’t remember us having much more of a conversation. I also had a flight in the morning so I called it an evening and suggested we hook up for lunch after his re-fly.

Early the next day, I was strapping into the cockpit and began to go over my pre-flight checklist. I turned the radios on, asked Ground for clearance to taxi, but my request was denied. An emergency was in progress. Perturbed I had to sit and wait, I looked up and saw billowing smoke coming from the other side of the hangar. As though someone took a sledgehammer to my gut, I thought of Tom.

I called back to Ground and asked the nature of the emergency. They told me a Harrier had crashed in the midfield. Since I was the second flight of the day and Tom was the first, I flashed on the previous night’s conversation. I frantically climbed out of the jet and headed to the ready room for answers.

Tom, a precious soul, was killed while transitioning from a hover to forward flight. A fair amount of wind was blowing that day and Tom transitioned without keeping the wind, both actual and relative, on the Harrier’s nose. A cardinal sin. The jet rolled, his altitude was between one hundred and two hundred feet and by the time he ejected, he was upside down. The rocket-propelled ejection seat launched Tom into the ground and killed him instantly.

I hope I wasn’t told that to assuage my guilt.

I have often thought of his last night on earth when he shared with me and have wondered about his young wife growing old without him and have envisioned his child’s life without a father and have imagined the things I should have said. When I left his room, did I have any concerns at all? When I put my head on my pillow, was I only consumed with me? Was I so cold-hearted that I couldn’t warm to the thought of comforting Tom?

There’s no room for self-doubt when flying a fighter; did it cross my mind to tell my commanding officer of Tom’s deadly confession?

Tom, please forgive me. I addressed your fears with an insensitive and cavalier attitude. You may have wanted to talk about God, but it would have fallen on deaf ears. You may have desired to pray, but I would have been too self-conscious. You may have craved someone to listen with love, but I wasn’t that kind of guy. Had I been a man of Christ, I could have done something. I could have saved your life.

  • dianne

    everyone has thoughts like these when someone dies. My son and my mother have gone on ahead and every day I think of new things to regret. We should stop beating ourselves up. But also we should be inspired to be more thoughtful to those we have left.

    • You’re absolutely right Dianne. And look deep into their eyes, encounter their mirrored souls and imagine those souls good. Then say, “I love you.”

  • David

    Where you thinking of the Feast of the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin Mary (as my first Missal – from 1910 – calls it) when you posted this?

    The Sequence, “Stabat Mater”, struck me strongly, the other day, as a measure and encouragement with respect to compassion, and the needs to grow in it and pray to that end.

    Having once followed their counselling course, in order to promote, intelligently, a pro-life counselling service where only women do the actual counselling, I can imagine the most earnest, compassionate conversation with your buddy being followed by the same events the next day — if he had still prayerfully, conscientiously decided to try again – which, though alone, is (from your description of him) what he may well have done.

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