Now and then my husband reflects on the military friends he’s lost. Most of them I knew only from stories he told me of things they did or said. He remembers everything, but what I remember most about his time in the U.S. Marine Corps was his deployment to the Persian Gulf in 1990 and the things that happened during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
There’s no equivalent to saying goodbye to someone who is leaving for a military deployment. It’s hard to explain what it feels like if you’ve never served or never loved someone who has. On the day Bruce left I felt pride mixed with fear, insecurity, and uncertainty, but mostly love and a fervent hope he’d come home safely.
Bruce and I have talked about his time in the military. He misses it because he had a mission, and it gave his life purpose. He served something greater than himself. His service gave me that also, but these days I don’t miss it, especially at Memorial Day. Because I know I’m one of the lucky ones. My husband came back. What I feel now is gratitude.
I still remember holding our baby son in May of 1990 and standing beside the helicopter carrier to say goodbye to Bruce for what we thought would be a routine six month deployment. He left in May and was to be home by Christmas, but he didn’t return for ten long months. His Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG) was the first to go to the Persian Gulf and the last to come home.
Back then we lived in California, far from my family, and I was alone with a five month old baby. That was a time of long-distance phone calls, film cameras, and daily newspapers. CNN was brand new, the first 24 hour news channel. The only source of communication between my husband and me were letters and packages sent across the miles. Sometimes they arrived in order, sometimes not. Sometimes they got dropped in the ocean.
While Bruce was deployed, I became an active member of the HMM-164 “wives’ club.” We were all lonely, and as usual in times when people are tested by shared uncertainty and fear, we grew close. We protected each other when we could and shared each other’s grief when we couldn’t. We operated a phone tree and distributed whatever news needed to be spread the old fashioned way–by phone. When bad news came, we supported each other.
In early October, bad news did come. I don’t remember what time I received the call, but I remember the words. “There’s been a mishap. Two helicopters are missing. They can’t find the crews.” I remember how I felt. Stunned there had been a crash, then grateful because I knew my husband was safe, then guilty and heartbroken because someone I knew had lost a loved one. They would receive a visit.
This is what happened. “At approximately 0415 on 8 October 1990, two UH-1N helicopters from HMM-164 launched from the USS Okinawa for an “at sea NVG [Night Vision Goggle] training operation” off the coast of Oman [North Arabian Sea]. At approximately 0513 the two helicopters disappeared from radar and failed to respond to radio calls. Observers on the flight deck saw a ball of fire dropping into the sea. Search efforts recovered very little wreckage and no sign of aircrew. All were declared missing at sea. The eight men aboard were considered the first casualties of Operation Desert Shield.
The eight aircrew were:
Capt W. Cronin
Capt G. Dillon
Capt K. Dolvin
Capt W. Hurley
Sgt K Keller
Sgt J Kilkus
Cpl T Romei
L/Cpl T. Adams”
I didn’t know until later that Captain William Hurley slept in the rack above my husband’s on the ship, that they knew each other, joked with each other, laughed together, shared pork rinds and packages from home. He was from the Chicago area like my husband, and according to a Chicago Tribune article, his sister said that he admired the marriage his parents had and that he “hoped one day he could be to someone what they`d been to each other all these years.”
While the men were still deployed, a memorial was held on base for the families of these men. I’ve never attended anything that so affected me before or since.
I’ve been forever grateful for my husband’s survival all these years. Before we married, my pastor counseled me that my husband was the kind of man who, if he wasn’t flying helicopters for a living, would be racing cars or riding motorcycles or pursuing some other dangerous occupation. In fact, 10 of the 52 pilots in his squadron have since died from plane crashes, only two of them civilian crashes.
People who join the military are the best kind of people–they are heroes who run toward trouble to keep the rest of us safe. They didn’t want to die. But they also knew every single day that dying was a possibility.
We remember our fallen heroes on Memorial Day, but my husband thinks often of those men, especially Bill, his roommate on the ship. Rarely does he say anything. That’s not his way. But occasionally he’ll remember something about his days aboard the Okinawa, and he’ll share snippets with me. I know he thinks of them and others who’ve passed away and left their families behind. We who benefit from the courage of the fallen owe it to them to honor their memories and to protect the liberties they died to protect.