My life has changed over that last ten months and the meaning of Memorial Day changed with it. There have been some comments on one of the later post here on BFA about politicizing Memorial Day, what is fair and what is objectionable when a political point of view references our troops, our fallen warriors, and our veterans. You might be interested in an essay on the Huffington Post, by a fellow member of Gold Star Families Speak Out.
As it is for other Gold Star family members, today is now very sacred for me.
I was brought up in a family of patriots. My grandmother was widowed at the age of 36, and left to raise seven children. During World War II, my father, all four of his brothers, and one of his sisters served in the Navy. My grandmother and my remaining aunt went to work as riveters at Boeing. My Uncle Glenn was severely wounded at Pearl Harbor and was later killed at the Boeing factory by a piece of metal that pierced his heart. He left a widow and six small children. My mother’s only brother was a Marine in the Pacific. I remember him tell me about storming a beach and saving one of his wounded comrades. All my uncles and aunts have now passed and will be remembered. I spent nearly 21 years in the USAF, serving five tours in the Middle East. Dozens of my friends died in aircraft accidents and in combat. And still, the meaning of Memorial Day did not become clear until this year.
Today, I now think about those I knew, personal friends and family, who gave everything for their country. The first person I knew that died was Bill Wilhelm. He and I were both student pilots, both flying solo fights that day when he crashed in the final turn before landing his T-38. The T-38 was a pleasure to fly, but is notorious in this final phase of flight for unnoticed high sink rates. This situation becomes unrecoverable because once it’s noticed, it’s impossible to eject safely. On my solo flight that day, I flew directly over the fresh flaming crash site where my friend was killed.
Today I will also think about two friends who hit the side of a mountain doing Terrain Following Radar (TFR) training at night in the F-111. I knew another two, Will Morel and Jeff "Flounder" Fahnlander, died nearly twenty years later in the F-15E doing the same in Idaho. One of my initial classmates in the F-111 died on the eve of Desert Storm flying an EF-111, at night. One of my crewmates during Operation Southern Watch and a very special friend, Dennis White, was killed when his pilot got disoriented during a night air-to-air training mission in 1994. Their aircraft, pointing nearly straight down with their instruments frozen and unable to correctly figure out which way was up and down on that very dark night, punched out of their F-15E at supersonic speed. The pilot lived with two broken legs, two dislocated shoulders and blinded by the terrific wind blast. Dennis was nearly cut in two by his parachute straps during the deployment of his chute at this speed. He was found four days later floating in the Atlantic. At the time I was newly assigned to the Pentagon, and Salette and I were able to attend his funeral at Arlington and weep with his wife and two young daughters.
On 30 September 1990, I remember showing up to the deployed squadron location in Thumrait, Oman, and finding that two of my friends had crashed. Peter Hook was a good and natural leader and his crewmate, Weapon System Operator (WSO) James 'Boo Boo' Poulet were killed on a low-level training mission in the Omani desert. Just a few months before their deaths, Boo Boo and I had a massive fuel leak while air-to-air fueling over the coast of North Carolina. The pressure build-up blew the seal of our newly built F-15E and we were losing nearly 5000 gallons an hour. We landed with only drops of fuel in our tanks. He was good person. Salette and I attended separate memorial services for these two; she in North Carolina with Pete Hook’s widow and children, and I in Oman.
Maj. Tom "Teek" Koritz was a pilot turned flight surgeon who I met while in-processing to our base in North Carolina. Tom wanted to be one of the rare flight surgeons that actually got to pilot an aircraft, too. After nearly a year of medical work, he was allowed to go through the F-15E school to become a pilot/flight surgeon. He made a deal with the DoD to wave his doctor duties for two years, while becoming proficient in the airplane. The second night of Desert Strom, while dodging anti-aircraft fire, he collided with the ground just north of Kuwait/Iraq boarder, killing both himself and his WSO, Don Holland. The hospital at Seymour Johnson AFB is named after Teak. I can go on for a long time about those I knew who gave their lives. Even in the nearly six years since my retirement, I know two JetBlue pilots who died in Guard and Reserve flying.
To date, 4,082 American service members have died in Iraq. This does not include those like Sgt. Merlin German who died a year after being wounded, because you’re not counted as a casualty of this occupation if you die after the MedEvac flight takes off out of Iraq. Only recently have we been able to legally view photos of the caskets of our returning heroes. You see, the currently administration took the political opportunity to ban photographs detrimental to their cause and journalists lost their jobs for publishing any such photos. The politics of this administration, which sent these brave Americans to their deaths for reasons that have be proven untrue, are dishonorable. They deserve their due criticism, even on this most sacred day and maybe even more so.
In 1999 a barrel of oil was $18. In 2002, Halliburton stock was selling at $6 per share. Now oil is $132 a barrel and HAL is $47 per share, and I didn’t even mention the thousands of percent increase in no-bid contracts they now have. So some of you worry about politicization of Memorial Day, but every day our sons and daughters die to keep the profits flowing into the pockets of the rich. And some of that money we spend to fill our tanks is going into the hands of Saudis who are funding Al Qaeda. It’s the perfect perpetual war.
George W. Bush likes to stand in front of our soldiers, but he refuses to stand behind them. He has vowed to veto the new GI Bill, even though 75 senators voted for it. While serving in the Texas Air National Guard as a non-volunteer for combat duty, Bush went AWOL and was sent to a USAF base in Denver for punishment. This combat volunteer found it revolting to watch him land on a US Navy carrier more than five years ago and declare victory and “Mission Accomplished.”
Perhaps even more revolting is the commercialization of this very sacred day.
Go ask Jim Click what’s important on Memorial Day, if he doesn’t say selling cars, he’s a liar. Just look at the ads in the Star or you can see his priorities on his web site.
I dare say what is important about this day is what is important to big business. The oil executive’s motto every Memorial Day seems to be “Fill up and drive and happy driving all summer long.” Don’t worry about our oil situation, we’ll keep our brave fighting for our oil as long as we can afford, and remember, they are dying for you to have those long car trips so don’t forget them this day. Wal-Mart can hardly wait to sell you cheap imported grills and hot dogs this day. Circuit City and Best Buy compete to give you a great: no interest until 2011 if you buy on this sacred day.
When most folks are in the pool or cooking up a great barbeque, buying cars or wide screen TVs, celebrating their day off and wishing to have more days off, I’ll be at my son’s grave remembering his birth, his life, and his death.