I began October of 2009 as I had many other months of the preceding few years…beginning a 60 day rotation in Afghanistan, flying the MH-47G for special operations forces across the country. It was to be a two month rotation, which would keep me from my wife for her birthday, but would return me in plenty of time for Christmas–a rare event in our world.
I hopped on to tail number 747, my ride for the month. My crew was comprised of Nick, Sway (short for Josue), Philly and Stewie, with Shawn filling the slot of Doc, since we were the CASEVAC bird. I brought with me Niall Lyons, newly arrived and on his first rotation overseas with the unit. The month went like many others; the nights were dark, the LZs were dusty and scary, and the bad guys seemed to be everywhere. We had a few scrapes, a few interesting moments, but overall, not a bad couple of weeks.
I soon got some good news/bad news. Good news, you’re going home in 2 days. The bad news, it’s because we’re bringing you back for December and January. Not totally happy news, to be sure. But, that is the way things work sometimes, so I focused more on the good and passed my crew on to my good friend Mike Montgomery.
48 hours later, I was back home, cobbling together a surprise birthday party for my wife. The party went off well, with lots of unit friends and wives in attendance. We went to bed tired and happy. A day later, however, the morning started with fear and trepidation. News reports came out early that day of the loss of a helicopter in Afghanistan. The wife of a fellow unit member was calling my wife, worried and fearful. A knot began to form in my belly.
In to work, and it was obvious that there was news to be had…just not officially. We hoped. We worried. We waited. At about 10 that morning, a pilot on battalion staff came down to the hangar and pulled us all into a room. 747 had gone down. We lost Mike, Niall, Sway, Nick, and Shawn. Additionally, the SF teams, DEA, and Afghan National Army lost several of their own, but frankly, we weren’t listening. We were ‘aw, helling’ our way through the five names we knew so intimately, so well. And I was wondering about Philly, about Stewie. Injured and being cared for, but still…not home, not with us.
That was a long day.
As many know, official notification can be a long and painful process to arrange. My wife was on the ‘after notification’ list for Mike’s wife, so she got an ‘official’ call before I did. She and one other wife sat in a van outside Mike’s house while the notification team did their painful job. The next several days were centered on their house, for us. As it was for the houses of others lost.
I was in town long enough for a memorial service that filled the ADAG at Hunter Army Airfield. And then, I was off again…as a replacement, back to the fight. We were one crew and one aircraft down. By the end of October, 2009, I was back where I started the month. Only this time, it was with five freshly-framed photos arranged into a memorial mounted on the wall of our planning area.
It has been five years since that long and grueling month. I have since left the Army and the unit and people I loved so deeply. But it does not lessen the loss. It does not make me stare less wistfully at pictures of my friend, and of my crew. It does not make Mike any less of a professional, or any less the pilot that everyone aspired to be. It doesn’t remove the over-riding sense of unfairness. It cannot erase the wails of a child being told that his daddy will never come home again.
I’m not saying there’s a lesson in this post. There isn’t, or at least not one I can recognize. There is memory. There is honor. There is respect. There is love.
Perhaps some day October will be easier.