Thursday, December 14, 2006

Farewell to a Friend

Every once in a while, we received one of those not-so-gentle reminders about the fragile nature of that precious gift called life.

I found one of those reminders in today's e-mail. A colleague informed me of the sudden passing of a former squadron-mate, who died over the weekend. All three of us had served in the same Air Force unit, but at slightly different times. My colleague didn't know Rod, the gentlemen who had passed away, but I knew him well.

Rod arrived in our squadron in 1994, at perhaps the busiest time in the unit's history. We were involved in daily operations over Bosnia, completing a squadron move to a base in the southwest, and subject to other tasking under various OPlans and theater commanders. I had just moved my family cross-country when the unit was deployed to Puerto Rico, for the invasion of Haiti. Rod was still a student (and not yet qualified to fly operational missions), but we took him along on the deployment. In military terms, we were a "low density/high demand" asset, meaning that we never had enough aircraft or crews to go around. To support a sudden deployment, we needed all the bodies we could get, mission-ready or not.

I would up running the mission planning cell in Puerto Rico, and Rod was assigned to work for me. We quickly discovered that Rod was not only a good guy, he was all effort. While the rest of us planned the daily missions, he tied up all the loose ends. Need someone to arrange crew transportation for the next two weeks? Rod was the guy. Someone to actually put all the maps and planning aids in mission folders. Rod took care of that. Coordinate with life support so the right amount of survival gear was packed on the right aircraft? Rod had already done that. A lot of it was grunt work, but he didn't care. Rod got the job done--and then some--and we all owed him a debt of thanks.

Just days after returning from Puerto Rico, the squadron deployed again, this time to Saudi Arabia. Saddam was threatening to invade Kuwait (again), and once more, we got the call. With unit manning still critical, we decided to make Rod part of our advance team, which would handle the beddown of aircraft, crews and equipment at Dhahran. The advance party consisted of three people: a Lieutenant Commander (one of our battlestaff directors), Rod, and yours truly. Once again, Rod was indispensable. At one point, we worked 40 hours straight, but when the aircraft and crews arrived from the state, we were ready. Our unit met all of its operational tasking in Saudi Arabia, and once again, Rod played an important role in that success.

Amid all the deployments, Rod earned his MR status, and went on to serve with distinction as a combat crew member over Bosnia. But most importantly, he was a great human being; always positive and upbeat, and invariably with a smile on his face. He was passionate about his family, aviation and photography, in that order. Rod was not only a private pilot, he was one of those rare (read: daring) individuals who build and fly kit aircraft. When I left the unit in 1995, his latest creation was still under construction in the garage, but eventually he took it into the skies.

I ran into Rod again ten years later, in the hallway of the building where I work. In retirement, he had signed on with a defense contractor, and worked in an office across the street. We spent more than a half-hour chatting in the hallway, reliving old times and catching up with each other. We promised to have lunch sometime, a promise that was renewed every time we crossed paths in the parking lot, or a conference room.

Sadly, that lunch will never happen, at least in this lifetime. There will be a memorial service for Rod in a few days, and I'm sure there will be a large turnout, because he accumulated friends wherever he went. We'll laugh and shed a few tears in remembrance of an outstanding officer, a wonderful husband and father, and a true friend.

Rod died before his 45th birthday, far too young, and a reminder that our time on this planet is all too brief. He crammed quite a bit of living--and accomplisment--into the time he had, and we would do well to emulate his example. Live every day as if it were your last; tell your wife that you love her, give your kids a hug before you go to work, spend time doing something you truly enjoy.

And make time for lunch with a friend.

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