NOVEMBER 1, 1999
What is gained is loss
© 1999

Recently I had the extraordinary opportunity to fly with the Blue Angels (see my column, "Pocket Rocket" ). When I heard there had been a Blue Angel accident I was upset. Early reports indicated two aviators had been killed, and one airplane had crashed. Those facts exacerbated my concern. The Blue Angels only have one F/A-18 Hornet with two seats, and that is the plane that had dragged me through the sky a few weeks earlier.

My immediate thoughts and prayers went to Lt. Keith Hoskins and his family. I have done too much and been too many places to be easily impressed, but Lt. Hoskins impressed me. Beyond his skill, professionalism, physical and mental capacities, he personifies what the Blue Angels are all about ... the best of the best. The Navy's poster boys ... the superior standard wannabees could and should strive to attain. His joy of flying was barely overshadowed by his excitement at seeing his wife that sunny weekend in San Francisco. I wasn't only impressed with Keith ... I liked him as a man. The thought that he may have been killed troubled me deeply.

When I eventually learned he had not been one of the two navy aviators killed, I experienced a brief moment of relief. But wait up ... those two men who did die were just like Keith. Lt. Cmdr. Kieron O'Connor and Lt. Kevin Collings did die. I didn't know them personally, but grief came flooding back immediately after that momentary respite. The Blue Angels, the Navy, the country, and two families have lost irreplaceable treasures. The tears I had saved for Lt. Hoskins I shed for his comrades.

Military personnel train to do dangerous stuff. Murphy's Law conspires routinely with the Laws of Probability to guarantee that soldiers, sailors, Marines and aviators die in training. I have lost friends and associates in training fatalities; stuff happens. However, it never diminishes the personal grief and loss one experiences. It is too often easy to hear of one of these training accidents and shrug it off as a mere sadness because it doesn't impact directly on you or your family. However, any uniformed death, regardless of how detached you may feel you are from it, does impact on you, your family, and your country.

July 14, 1971, I was at Fort Benning, Ga. We were engaged in a Field Training Exercise and practicing Platoons in the Attack. Aggressors were occupying a hill that my unit was assaulting. There was a lot of blank ammunition being expended, and grenade simulators and artillery simulators exploding. The aggressors also had the advantage of tactical air support, and they used it. The forward edge of the battle area (that's were my unit was) was getting strafed by Air Force go-fast jets. We'd get half way up the hill (since the blanks being shot at us didn't slow us down) and out of nowhere would come a roar and these jets would dive over our heads and climb back out of sight.

It was make believe, but even though we were not actually getting shot at, EVERYONE dove for cover. The lane grader (referee) walked around tapping guys on the back and informing them, "You're dead!"

After the third aerial buzzing we remembered the class on fire and maneuver and as half the platoon fired at the bad guys, the rest of us ran toward the objective. The next hour of my life is chiseled into my soul.

I didn't really hear the noise as much as I felt it. I was knocked off my feet by what felt like a giant mattress striking my whole body. For a short period I couldn't hear, and I was blinking through dust and dirt to see what had happened.

What had happened was the lead pilot of our aggressor tactical air support had come in too low (some say about 50 feet off the ground) and experienced some mechanical hiccup. His jet had crashed one air second from our position. Fate and one second had saved my life and the lives of everyone on that hill.

As I was counting noses and checking that my people were all present and more or less OK, the lane grader grabbed me and told me to follow him. I had been wearing a shoulder-mounted radio (AN/PRC-77) and we needed to talk to "someone." The lane grader, one other soldier and myself ran into the small fire to our south.

There was a charred patch of Georgia hillside a little bigger than a football field around 200 yards away. The fire was small since apparently there had not been much fuel left in the ill-fated jet. As we were running through the smoke and trying to talk on the radio we heard someone had reported seeing a parachute.

We found the parachute and shrouds fully extended lying on the ground. At the end of the risers was the body of the pilot. He looked strangely peaceful but different. I won't share the details of his massive injuries. However, when a jeep drove into the diminishing fire, we rolled the body into his parachute, and I sat on the hood of the Jeep. The body was lifted into my lap and I cradled it for the ride back to a staging area away from the fire where a helicopter was waiting. It didn't feel like a man in my arms.

After the medevac had taken the body from me, it was kind of weird. I was covered from chin to ankles in sticky blood. It was then my mind started to work as adrenaline subsided. That parachute full of warm meat, the drying blood saturating my fatigues had been a man.

I later learned he had been an Air Force major with two tours in Vietnam and four rows of ribbons. He left behind a wife and two children. It struck me at the time wasteful that an experienced combat fighter pilot who had survived two combat tours should die as a training tool, trying to give a gaggle of green Army officers insight into the business of combat. I thought it a tragic loss not just to his family, the military or the country, but to those future pilots and green Army officers who would never have the opportunity to either learn from his experience or see his smile.

Although I am routinely disappointed, offended, and angry at many of the individuals who constitute the collective of our government, I love my country. Duty, Honor, and Country not only still have meaning, but also constitute the essence of what I am, and what I will always be -- for good or ill.

I am deeply saddened by the loss of Lt. Cmdr. O'Connor and Lt. Collings. I extend my most sincere and heartfelt condolences to the families of those two men, and to the entire Blue Angels organization. I hope that many of you would not only keep these men in your thoughts and prayers, but also include every soldier, sailor, marine, and airman who wear a uniform and defend a republic which allows lesser men to maintain the illusion of freedom and liberty.