The tragic story was international news: 22 Navy Seals killed in a helicopter crash during a mission in Afghanistan. Our nation paused to reflect; then moved on. But the job was far from over.
A contact at the Citadel sent me the following story written by one of the pilots; a Citadel alumnus who flew the fallen Seals home. With reverence, I submit this pilot's story written in his own hand to his Band of Brothers and Sisters at the Citadel. - Pete Mecca
Maj. Jacob Thornburg, Air Mobility Command
McChord Field, Wash., October 19, 2011
I had an unforgettable day yesterday and wanted to share it with you. I know we've all sat around and discussed in detail why we do what we do and if we will be willing to continue to do what we do day in and day out regardless of deployments, retirement decisions, employment opportunities, missed birthdays, missed holidays, etc. This is something I wanted to share and you were the people who came to mind. It's another reason I continue to serve. I guess because many others do and sacrifice a lot more, some even their lives.
My crew was alerted yesterday to find that our mission had changed. We were now a backup to a high priority mission originating in Afghanistan. When I asked where we would be going, the answer was, "back to the States." Later, I learned our destination was Dover.
I was the aircraft commander for one of the two C-17s that transferred the helicopter crash soldiers back home. The crew that started this mission in Afghanistan would end up running out of crew duty day and needed another crew to continue the soldier's journey. We just happened to be available. After being alerted and going through our normal sequence, I found myself at the foot of the aircraft steps.
Before I took my first step upward, I noticed a transfer case close to the door. I had only seen them in pictures. The American flag was tucked smartly, folded and secured on top. I paused at the bottom of the stairs, took a deep breath and continued up with my mind and eyes focused on making it to the next ladder leading to the cockpit.
However, as I entered, I couldn't help but notice the remaining 19 transfer cases in the cargo compartment. The entire cargo compartment was filled with identical transfer cases with American flags. I made my way up to the cockpit and received a briefing from the previous aircraft commander. After the briefing we exchanged a handshake and the other pilot was on his way.
I felt a need to ensure the crew focused on their normal duties. I instructed the other two pilots to begin the pre-flight. I went back down into the cargo compartment to see what needed to be done and find the paperwork I needed to sign.
The cargo compartment was now filled with people from mortuary affairs. They were busy adjusting, resetting and overall preparing the cases for their continued flight. Before they began, I asked who was in charge because I knew there was paperwork I needed to sign. I finally found a staff sergeant who was working an issue with the paperwork. After it was complete, he brought it up to the cockpit for me to review and sign.
There are moments in life I will never forget. For me, it's the days my son and daughter were born. Another occurred five months ago when I had to deliver the unthinkable news to a mother that her son was killed in Afghanistan and although I didn't anticipate another day like this soon, yesterday was another. I looked at the paperwork I was signing and realized the magnitude of the day. I glanced over the paperwork and signed. In a way, I felt I had taken ownership of the fallen soldiers. It was now my duty to ensure they make it home.
After confirming the preflight was complete and the aircraft was fueled, I went outside to start my walk-around. As I walked down the steps, a bus had parked in front of the aircraft and unloaded 11 passengers. The passengers were fellow Navy Seal team members who were escorting the fallen back to the States. I stood at the front of the aircraft and watched them board.
Every one of them walked off the bus with focus in their eyes and determination in their steps, just as I imagined they do when they go on a mission. I made eye contact with the lead Seal, nodded my head in respect, and he nodded back.
Finishing my walk-around, I stopped at the bottom of the stairs. I looked up into the cargo compartment - two American flags and one Seal Team Six flag hung from the top of the cargo compartment. Three of 20 transfer cases visible: one with an American flag and two with Afghan flags. I looked up at my aircraft and saw "United States Air Force" painted on the side and I stood there trying to take it all in. I wanted to make certain that I never forget these images. That I never forget the faces of the Seals, the smell of the cargo compartment or the sun slowing rising over the landscape. It's important that I don't forget. We need to honor the dead, honor the sacrifice of the fallen.
I understand my role in getting these fallen soldiers home is insignificant compared to the lives they lived and the things they did for our country. Most of it we will never know. All I know is every American should see what I've seen. Every American should see the bus loads of families as they exit the freeway headed for Dover AFB to reunite with their fallen or witness the amount of time, effort, people and equipment that go into ensuring our fallen have an honorable return.
The very next day we took the same aircraft back overseas. We had leveled the aircraft at our cruise altitude and I walked down to the cargo compartment. No more American flags hung from the ceiling.
All the transfer cases were gone. Instead, I watched a father lay with his son, cradled on his chest, on the same spot that only yesterday held a fallen soldier. I watched a young girl, clutching a teddy bear, sleeping quietly where the fallen had lain. I realized so many Americans have no idea where the fallen lay.
I'm honored to be one who does.