COLUMBUS AIR FORCE --
"It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God such men lived."
- George S. Patton, 1945.
Once upon a time … I was indestructible.
I feared no one and nothing. Every challenge was an opportunity to triumph, every roadblock an opportunity to crush and prevail by brute force alone. Every decision I ever made in my military career was exclusively aimed at getting myself closer and closer to the fight. Have gun, will travel. In retrospect, the perceived invincibility of my youth has served both me and this nation quite well.
I have never lived so much as when I risked it all. Those were the best of days.
But I was not alone.
I can’t tell you that I always understood the true implications of sacrifice. In the rearview mirror of my marginally effective memory I want to feel like I understood--and certainly I should have understood--but it is more likely that I was too emotionally handicapped by youth and nativity to ponder something that deep for more than a few seconds. My opportunity would come.
It was Memorial Day weekend 2005 and I was home recovering from wounds I had received in Afghanistan only a few weeks before. I had been thinking hard about Memorial Day that year for some reason and wanted to ensure that my daughter, Erin, understood what it was all about. I intended to wake up early and drive out to the nearest cemetery, thinking that possibly we would run into a pack of Boy Scouts placing flags on the headstones of servicemen and women. I supposed that even if they didn’t let her help, it would serve as opportunity and venue for us to talk about service and sacrifice.
Erin was seven at the time, in the preceding four years, training or deployed, I had been away from home well over 40 months. Just two years before that day in fact, sitting on the floor of the living room, outfitted in a dress made of bubble wrap and practicing her Kim Possible, Naked Mole Rat dance. I tried to explain to her what I did for a living. A video of Osama Bin Laden flashed across the screen triggering a conversation that began with “Do you remember the World Trade Center? Well it’s my turn to go get that guy.” I said with all of the positive persuasion I could, hoping that she would be so excited for me that my leaving for the upcoming deployment would be a minor aspect. She wasn’t impressed, she cared less about some bad guy living half way around the world and more about just having her dad home.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a child my worst fear was that something awful would happen to my dad and he wouldn’t come home. I remember nights lying awake in bed, tears running down my cheeks, worrying about some horrible accident that would never happen. But my dad wasn’t a special operator, he was a banker. He didn’t deploy, jump out of airplanes or blow things up; his greatest professional risk was driving down I-10 to go to work. In fact, in my entire childhood, I can only remember one time he was not home for dinner every night.
Now on the eve of Memorial Day 2005, my daughter had not only been without me more than with me, but had seen her dad return home wounded. What does that look like through the eyes of a seven year old? Sacrifice right? That’s what we say in this business, the whole military family sacrifices.
But that’s not the sacrifice that this story is about.
The phone rang at 0730 on Memorial Day, Monday, May 30, 2005. The voice on the other end told me that he needed me to come in to work immediately. I knew why and only asked one question, “who?” the response still sends chills down my spine today … “worst case possible.”
Combat controllers rarely deployed together those days, I couldn’t even comprehend how any more than one guy could have been hurt. When I arrived to the squadron I learned that the airfield survey team, operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, had gone down in a small non-standard aircraft killing all on board. In addition to an American pilot from a sister flying squadron and his Iraqi co-pilot, we had lost three men: Capt. Derek Argel, Capt. Jeremy Fresques and Staff Sgt. Casey Crate. Capt. Argel was my assistant team leader. I was assigned to be the Family Liaison Officer (FLO) for his wife Wendy and son Logan, not yet a year old, and would follow right behind the notification team.
I can’t even begin to tell you how cool Capt Argel was. At 6’ 4” or better, he was literally a man bigger than life. A star water polo player at the U.S. Air Force Academy, he crushed record after record as he made his way through the CCT pipeline. Argel was a man’s man, a physical specimen, instructors often supplemented heavy logs and other handicaps to his run, ruck or swim, just to flatten the playing field a little bit. But it never even slowed him down, as he would finish with the log on one shoulder, and typically a struggling team mate across the other.
For a long time I refused to believe that he could even be injured in that plane crash. That in the field of debris and ball of fire, he would stand, dust himself off and start finding his team.
It was Argel that greeted me on the ramp at Bagram when my medevac arrived from the field. Wrapping his massive hand around mine and shaking it excitedly “what’s up RY?” he said with a slight grin. He was so proud of me, and it was written on his face. In past several days leading up to the crash, I had been emailing Capt. Argel who was still in theater. We discussed a number of things, but his future as a special tactics officer weighed most heavily on his mind. He had gotten a taste of the action recently, and wanted more. He was worried that his future role as an officer would take him further from the fight.
Now, still on crutches, I was standing at his front door, where inside a notification team was delivering news that would forever change the lives of the young family inside.
It would be the most impactful moments of my life.
Erin was there too. I needed her for an important task.
“Erin, Logan just lost his dad, but he’s really little and really won’t understand right now. When we get there, I’m going to need you to take care of him. His mom is going to be really sad. It’s going to be a long day. I need you to play with him, change his diaper, make him some food when he is hungry, a nap if he needs it… whatever, but I don’t want his mom to have to worry about him.”
Erin said nothing, just nodded that she understood.
Much of the rest of that day, that week, that month actually, is a blur. But I do remember this-- from the moment we walked in that door to the end of the day maybe 10 or 12 hours later, we never heard from or saw Erin and Logan. Not a single question or concern, complaint or grumble from either one of them.
As it would turn out, I didn’t need the boy scouts or a flag planting detail. On that Memorial Day, she accepted and accomplished her task with selfless efficiency. It occurs to me now, that at seven years old, it is entirely possible she had a better understanding of service and sacrifice than many serving today.
So, what did you do for Memorial Day? Go to a ballgame? Barbeque? Maybe hit the beach? I truly hope you enjoyed yourself. I hope you were able to spend quality time with your friends and loved ones. As a sentinel of this nation, you deserve it. You deserve to enjoy every amazing aspect of a life and country dedicated to those very freedoms you defend.
But before you put Memorial Day 2018 in your rearview mirror, I have one small request.
I won't ask you to put on your blues, visit a wall or memorial, or make plans to take your kids to the cemetery to help out those Boy Scouts next year.
No further need for you to be solemn, reflective, or mourn today for those who have died serving this country.
Please, for the sake of all that you hold dear, I need you to do just one more simple thing...
Get down on your knees and thank God that such men lived.
Those men, forever young, immortalized by war, their fearlessness, bravery and courage woven into every fiber of this nation. And the only request that they possibly ask? Remember me.
Our greatest act of valor is not behind us but before us my friends, remembering those that gave all is the solemn duty of all that return home. It is at once the obligation and honor of a lifetime.
That should their sacrifice be forgotten, that their name be no longer remembered, that the long history of America be remembered without their deed; shall we perish as fools from this earth forever.
To my brothers, I will remember you and our times together fondly; indestructible once and young.
Derek Argel, May 30, 2005
Jeremy Fresques, May 30, 2005
Casey Crate, May 30, 2005
Adam Servias, Aug. 19, 2006
William Jefferson, March 22, 2008
Timothy Davis, Feb. 20, 2009
Andrew Harvell, Aug. 6, 2011
Neil Landsberg, May 9, 2013
Marty Bettelyoun, Aug. 3, 2015
Sean Harvell, April 26, 2016