The military loses scores of personnel every year in training or operational accidents. Each one risked and lost his or her life for something they believed in, leaving behind friends, family, and shipmates to bear the burden and celebrate their devotion to our country.
In a era of downsizing and tight budgets, it's easy to let the issues of the day and our different cultures and traditions distance us from our peers in the other military services. Memorial Day is one day of the year when those differences seem insignificant, when all service members reflect on the one defining experience many of us have felt that sets us apart from the rest of society - the loss of close friends in the defense of our nation.
It seems that anyone who has spent a few years in uniform has a story of a shipmate who died in combat or while preparing for it. Those memories are something that many of our civilian counterparts cannot fathom. They realize that those of us in the military are expected to make the ultimate sacrifice when called, and they are willing to take the day off in observance of the many who have, but few realize and fewer have experienced-the incredible price the military pays to ensure freedom in both peacetime and war.
The issue is important enough that once a year we take time to remember and pass along a story of when we first learned that freedom isn't free. It is the tenth anniversary of one such experience for me.
By tradition, an aviation squadron's most junior officers are packed in the least desirable bunk rooms on board an aircraft carrier. BK 10 on the USS Midway (CV-41), directly under the starboard catapult, was home to seven frocked lieutenants and three lieutenants junior grade of VAQ-136, as the carrier entered the Indian Ocean in late 1987. We had all been to sea before, on shorter cruises to the Philippines, Thailand, or Korea, but this was the first time that we felt there was real potential for combat. The Iranians had threatened to restrict transits of the Strait of Hormuz, and we were en route to provide air cover for reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers and their U.S. Navy escorts.
In preparing for our role in what was dubbed Operation Earnest Will, Carrier Air Wing 5 air crew had filled out authenticator cards and reviewed procedures in the event an aircraft emergency necessitated search-and-rescue operations some distance from the carrier. I remember a lively discussion among the junior officer air crew in BK 10 that started with, "If I mort, I want you guys to." The light-hearted banter resulted in an agreement that if somebody didn't make it, the rest would throw a wild party in his honor at the Oak Harbor Tavern in Barrio Barretto, Philippines.
Late on the evening of 22 November 1987, the last cycle recovered on board the Midway but without our EA-6B Prowler. I remember walking into the ready room that night. Shock written on every face, the remaining air crewmen busied themselves computing the aircraft's possible maximum time aloft, in the hope that the Prowler had just lost use of its radios and soon would be "in the groove." It had been an emissions-control launch and recovery, so no radar operator could have seen a blip disappear from his screen. No emergency call had been heard, and no other aircraft reported seeing an explosion. We assumed the worst and broke out the gouge for dealing with an aircraft accident.
Assignments were passed out, and as I headed back to BK 10 to seal the wall lockers of my three bunkmates, I noticed a large cake sitting in front of the commanding officer's ready room chair. It was to have been his 1,000th trap. The Navy lost four fine officers that evening. Despite an extensive search, no wreckage was ever located.
These four guys were really good people. The pilot was superstitious and had a favorite pair of socks that he always wore when he flew. He told me once that he had not read a book (except NATOPS manuals) since his junior year in college, because he wanted to fly more than anything in the world and did not want to risk losing his perfect vision.
One of the flight officers was the subject of good-natured ribbing because even though he was on cruise, 5,000 miles from home, his mother felt the need to buy and mail off complete wardrobes for future wear in port. In each package, she was thoughtful enough to include socks to match the trousers and a new package of underwear.
One of the other flight officers had a love of Tai Kwon Do, and would always try to startle us with a fancy move as we entered the BK. I often felt a bit like Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies, fending off his most recently improvised "foot chop to the face."
And then there was the Skipper, who had a rare gift for being at ease with the responsibilities of command while being able to enjoy a little fun along the way. I remember him chewing me out in the ready room one morning on cruise, for being out of uniform. I was utterly confused until he pointed out that I was wearing lieutenant junior grade bars where my bull ensign bars had been the night before. I looked down and to my horror saw that someone had switched my rank insignia during the night. I had not noticed it as I dressed in the darkened BK that morning. My face flushed and I struggled with an explanation. The Skipper broke into a smile, handed me the already prepared letter of promotion, and said, "You might as well keep 'em on, Lieutenant." I had forgotten that the day marked my second year of service, so his well-planned trick provided us all with a good laugh.
These four men have been dead ten years. I miss their friendship, but I believe that because they died in the prime of their lives in the service of our country their sacrifices take on a special meaning. Maybe those three departed junior officers would be upset that the rest of us never did get around to having that party in the Barrio. I think, however, that to a man, what really would have impressed them was to know that to their shipmates they had come to personify the virtues that we salute on this national holiday.
A few years ago I visited Pensacola to see the place where my Navy life began. I toured the much expanded National Museum of Naval Aviation and found a large plaque on one wall listing all the pilots and naval flight officers who had reached the 1,000-trap milestone. It says a lot about this Navy of ours that someone had ensured that my late Skipper's name was included on that list.
The military loses scores of personnel every year in training or operational accidents. Each one risked and lost his or her life for something they believed in, leaving behind friends, family, and shipmates to bear the burden and celebrate their devotion to our country. For those of us who were on the Midway in November 1987, the loss of Commander Justin Greene, Lieutenant Dave Gibson, Lieutenant Doug Hora, and Lieutenant J. C. Carter gave meaning to words such as sacrifice and duty. They knew the risks they were taking and gave their lives for something bigger than themselves. I'll never forget them, and I'll never forget the day I learned that freedom isn't free.