So to say that this year has been hard for folks is an understatement! We all have our baggage and we all make our way through life as best we can. Our experiences and decisions shape the way we experience the world, our relationships with people, and the choices we make. Covid, for me, has made this harder. I’ve had a lot happen in my life over the last year and the last few months have had me living in my head more than usuall, and believe me…I live in my head. It’s quite scary at times!! However, I think we need to take a moment this week and be thankful. Thankful that there have been thousands upon thousands of men and women that have come before us and have given the ultimate sacrifice so that we can go forth and live our lives as we want, even in these crazy times.
This weekend marks Memorial Day. A day that we, as Americans, have set aside to remember the fallen men and women that gave their all in service to this great land.
In August of 1996, I was 20 years old. I was an Airman in the United States Air Force and had the greatest job in the world. I was a highly trained, full of myself, C-130 Loadmaster! I was surrounded by some of the best professional aviators that you could ever hope to fly with. I had unbelievable mentors, I was confident and definitely a bit cocky. I was young and invincible!
When I was brand new to my crew position as a loadmaster, I was assigned to Dyess Air Force Base. Shortly after arriving, I was quickly upgraded by my instructors and deemed fit to fly without supervision on a crew. I was 18 then! 18 YEARS OLD!! It never ceases to amaze me. A year earlier I was at home and just trying to make it through high school. Then after going through an intense training program, I was trusted to be a primary crew member on a multi million dollar aircraft. Our plane normally operated with five to six crewmembers. Two pilots, a flight engineer, navigator and one or two loadmaster depending on the mission profile. At 18 I found myself in a position of extreme responsibility. You had to know your job. If you didn’t, you could put people and equipment in danger. It was a lot to think about, but I was 18 and very confident in my abilities.
It was at this time my path crossed with two amazing individuals. The first time I was deployed to Saudi Arabia, I was placed on a hard crew. All this means is that we would fly with the exact same individuals for the next several months. My Aircraft Commander (The Boss) was Capt. Kevin Earnest…AKA Boo Boo. He was a great pilot, and I was fortunate to have him as an AC on my first big deployment. We carried some crazy cargo during that time. He never questioned what I was doing. He trusted this kid to do his job and he put his life in my hands. I did the same with every other crew position. That’s how the military operates. With absolute trust. In flight, you can’t perform efficiently without it. I have never experienced such trust in people before or since. It is definitely a unique experience, and Boo Boo had absolute trust in this tall skinny kid in the back of the plane. I was privileged to know him! He was my Brother!
It was also around this time that my path crossed with Staff Sergeant Jay Smith. He was my first direct supervisor. I had so much respect for him! He was SHARP! He was also tough. He knew his stuff and would not cut you any slack. He wanted the best out of his troops. I learned a lot from him, but he also genuinely cared about his guys. He often would check up on me and made sure that I was adjusting well to life at Dyess. He wanted to make sure I had a place to go during the holidays and he had me over to his house on more than one occasion. He loved his family and they always welcomed me with open arms. I was privileged to know him! He was my Brother!
Both of these men died with the rest of their crew in August of 1996. In total 9 people lost their lives that day. I was in Africa at the time. I remember that day vividly. I always was aware of the risks of the job and knew my responsibility, but nothing drives that point home like the death of your brothers and sister, to attend funerals, and to know that they took off one day and just never came home. I took things more seriously after that. I realized just how unforgiving the job could be. It was a lot to take in as a young 20 year old and I learned how to compartmentalize emotion and I finally got around to writing my first will. The risks became all too real for this kid. Talk about growing up over night.
No body wants to die for their country. I know I didn’t. They didn’t either. However, we ALL knew the risk. We knew that our number could be called up any day and at any time. We weren’t afraid, but we were aware. It is a painful and unfortunate cost, but numbers will continue to be called up. That’s what makes this country so great. The people! The people willing to serve and possibly die to ensure that we continue to exist. My friends checks came due that day, and it still bothers me often. As much as it bothers me though, I am fortunate. I am fortunate, because I was able to be in their presence for a time. I was fortunate to walk among professionals of unbelievable caliber, among friends and among family. It is a brotherhood plain and simple, and although I miss them, I love that I had the privilege to serve with them. Though there is still pain there sometimes, it has most definitely made me a better person.
As we approach this Memorial Day weekend I ask that you to remember that this weekend is not about burgers, hot dogs and the start of summer. It’s a day to remember the great people that gave their all. They gave their all FOR YOU! They had families, friends and lives. Freedom is not free. It is built on the lives of every day Americans and many of them paid for our way of life with their blood. Please take a moment this week to remember them. For without them, we wouldn’t exist and we are the memory keepers of those that go before us. Times are tough but we will prevail. We have to…for them.