Friday, May 25, 2018

Memorial Day

On this Memorial Day weekend, we offer a column first published more than a decade ago.  As we remember:

Slowly and sadly, Memorial Day is becoming just "another" holiday, better known for cookouts and retail deals than its intended purpose--honoring our fallen military heroes.  If you doubt this trend, watch TV for a few minutes this weekend.  There are plenty of ads for cars, furniture and clothes, (but unless you're watching Fox News), little is little mention of why Monday is a solemn, special day.
But for anyone who ever wore the nation's uniform--or those who understand the high price of freedom--Memorial Day will never lose its meaning.  For us, the last Monday in May brings memories of friends and family members who gave their lives on the battlefield, or died in service-related mishaps.  This may sound quaint, but their sacrifice (and the day that honors it) should not be a pretext for a mattress sale.  
That's one reason I stay away from the malls and the beach on Memorial Day.  Instead, my thoughts usually focus on three individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice and touched my own life in the process.  For me, Memorial Day is about Walter, Ken and Mike.  
I never knew my Uncle Walter.  He was my mother's kid brother, a child of the Great Depression who grew up poor in a small Mississippi town.  After graduating from high school in 1942, he followed the path taken by many young men: he joined the Marine Corps.  Two years later, he was a trained rifleman, part of the 1st Marine Division that had been assigned to the invasion of Peleliu, in the southwestern Pacific.  
Seven decades later, the battle remains steeped in controversy.  Historians and military analysts argue that the invasion was unnecessary.  But General Douglas MacArthur argued that he needed the island to support the planned re-taking of the Philippines.  MacArthur's plans were eventually approved by FDR and the attack on Peleliu began on September 15, 1944.   
What followed was--arguably--one of the toughest battles fought by U.S. forces in World War II, complicated by countless blunders and miscalculations.  General William Rupertus, commander of the 1st Marine Division, confidently predicted that his crack unit would wrap up the battle in just three days.  Rupertus didn't know that his division was out-numbered by Japanese defenders (dug into a honeycomb of defensive positions), or that the preliminary naval bombardment inflicted virtually no damage on the enemy.    
General Rupertus was also unaware that the Japanese had changed their tactics, shifting most of their fortifications away from the invasion beaches.  As the Marines moved inland, they ran into an almost impenetrable wall of pillboxes, machine-gun nests and carefully-concealed artillery positions.  The invasion quickly bogged down--it would take U.S. forces more than two months to secure the island--and the Marines paid dearly for their commanders' mistakes.  
One of them was my Uncle Walter.  He died on the second day of the battle, as his regiment advanced under withering fire.  A fellow Marine later told my mother that Walter was literally vaporized by a Japanese artillery shell.  To this day, my uncle is classified as Missing in Action; graves registration teams couldn't find enough remains to confirm his death in battle.  
I met Ken during my own military career, some forty years later.  He was an F-4 driver in the same unit where I served as the intelligence officer.  In some respects, he was a typical fighter jock; supremely confident and highly skilled.  But he was also a genuinely nice guy, one of the most popular members of our squadron.  Though only a Captain, he was widely regarded as one of the best pilots in our wing.  His future seemed limitless.   
But like my uncle, Ken's future also went unrealized.  We lost him on a "routine" training mission, though that adjective is often misused.  Little is routine about taking high-performance combat jets on simulated combat missions.  En route to a bombing range in northeastern Georgia, four of our F-4s descended for the low-level portion of their flight, practicing skills they would use to evade Soviet air defenses in central Europe.  It was something our crews did on a daily basis.  
Ken's Phantom was the last in a four-ship formation.  As they flew over a river, a flock of birds suddenly lifted out of the tree line, directly into the path of the F-4.  Multiple bird strikes took out both engines, fatally crippling the aircraft.  Ken did everything right; he pulled back on the control stick to gain altitude, called "Mayday" over the radio, and started the ejection sequence for himself and his weapons system officer (WSO).
The back seater escaped unharmed, but something went wrong when Ken's ejection seat deployed .  Parachute Lines became wrapped around his upper body and snapped Ken's neck as the chute deployed.  Searchers found the faulty chute and his body about 24 hours later, hanging from a tree near the crash site.  The following week we gathered in the base chapel to remember our departed comrade.  I had the honor of reading "High Flight" at the end of the Memorial Service.  Even today, I cannot read or recite the lines of John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s epic poem without thinking about Ken, another pilot who died too young, in the service of his country.  
Sacrifice also defined the life of Mike, the third hero who occupies my thoughts on Memorial Day.  He originally hoped to become an Air Force officer through the ROTC program where I was an instructor, but struggled academically.  When it became apparent that Mike would not meet the required time line for graduation and commissioning, it became my job to release him.  Having never been a scholarship student, Mike didn't owe the Air Force--or the country--anything.  He had the option of simply fading back into the student population, earning a degree, and getting on with life.    
But Mike--predictably--had other ideas.  After learning that a commission was out of reach, He promptly asked about enlisting as an airman, and I put him in touch with a local recruiter.  In hindsight, Mike's reaction was anything but surprising.  He was always the first cadet to volunteer for a project and see it through.  His determination was inspiring, and Mike earned the respect and admiration of his fellow cadets and the detachment staff.   
A few months after Mike enlisted, I got a phone call from his recruiter.  He reported that Mike hit another academic buzz saw in the airborne radio operator's course, and had dropped out of that program.  I remember writing a letter of recommendation, urging the service to retain Mike, and assign him to a new career field.  Happily, the Air Force concurred and sent Mike to an Army base in Virginia, where he was trained as a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief. 
It soon became apparent that Mike had found his niche.  He became an outstanding crew chief in a search-and-rescue squadron, maintaining HH-60 Pave Hawks helicopters.  Mike's performance led to his selection as a flight engineer, part of a helicopter aircrew.  
On March 23, 2003, Mike and the other members of his crew were deployed to Afghanistan.  They received word that two young Afghan girls were in desperate need of medical evacuation and treatment at a U.S. hospital.  The girls' village was located high in the mountains; the weather was already bad and deteriorating.   
Despite those risks, Mike and his crew took off, in an HH-60 with the call-sign "Komodo 11."  They were accompanied by a second rescue helicopter.  En route to the distant village, Komodo 11 crashed, killing Mike and five other crew members.  He was 29 years old,    
You won't find the names of Mike, Ken and Walter on the list of America's revered military heroes.  But they are heroes nonetheless, brave men whose selfless sacrifice embodies the best of our nation.  On this (and every) Memorial Day, they deserve thanks, gratitude and remembrance from a nation whose freedom they helped secure.

They deserve nothing less.  .

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