Service and Sacrifice

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.

HMM-164 1990-1991, USS Okinawa, My husband in the fourth one back from the first man on the left.

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.

Left to right: Bruce, JT, Pinkie, Nozzle and

I still remember holding my baby son in May of 1990 and standing beside the helicopter carrier, , helicopters, 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, my son’s first. Our son was five months old. Bruce didn’t return for ten months. His Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG) was the first to go to the Persian Gulf and the last to come home.

Bruce beside a CH-46, somewhere in the Philippines.

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.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Our son, wearing a flight suit made by Gramma Josie, while Dad was deployed.

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, (rather like now) 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 came. 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, 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.”

Captain William Hurley, USMC

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.

Those men were good people. 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.

Welcome home parade in Orange County

My husband thinks of those men, especially Bill, his roommate on the ship, every year. 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.

Proud American Moment

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Over the last few days I’ve heard stories on the radio and on Facebook of people sharing their proud moments of being an American. Not a day goes by that I don’t experience more than one moment like that, but I wanted to share one moment worth remembering. Twenty five years ago today I was in California with a six month old baby, waiting to hear whether my husband was still alive. My husband was part of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit that invaded Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm.

You must remember that back then, only 25 years ago, no internet and no cell phones existed. When we needed to communicate, we exchanged letters. We had never heard the term “snail mail.” It was just mail to us, and it was vitally important. I wrote to Bruce and he wrote back, often our letters were delayed or later ones arrived before the first ones did which resulted in a confusing message. But we didn’t care as long as we heard from one another. I sent pictures of our growing baby boy, and he asked all kinds of questions. We only talked on the phone when he was in port, and then only for a short time because the calls cost so  much money. Cable news had only one 24 hour news service then also, CNN, which I watched ALL the time for any news to indicate what was happening in Kuwait or even any word of where our Marines were.

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Throughout that ordeal of his being at war, the image that kept scrolling through my mind was Bruce standing on the deck of a harbor taxi in Singapore getting smaller and smaller as the boat took him back to his ship and far away from me. I clung to that memory and to our time together in Singapore, the last time we were together before the invasion of Iraq.

When word came that the Marines were landing an invasion force on the beaches of Kuwait, I knew Bruce was involved. Like the rest of the world I had no idea the plan was to lure Saddam Hussein’s forces toward the coast so the Allies could cut off their retreat to Iraq. To do that they had to make it appear  the Marines were invading via the beaches of Kuwait. Bruce flew a transport helicopter. I prayed for his safety and waited.

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Waiting is what military spouses do. We become very good at compartmentalizing our lives, in taking care of the business of living without ever forgetting our loved ones serving on the front lines or training to serve. We carry on. It’s what our lives were and still are in my case. We wait for our men to come home,and that’s just what my Marine did. In April after ten months of deployment, Bruce and the rest of the Marines finally came home. His squadron was the last to return home after the war and were nearly forgotten in the news coverage, but not in our hearts. On that day, hundreds of family members and friends gathered on the flight line to greet our Marines as they flew in from San Diego to MCAS Tustin.

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On this Independence day of 2016, I am very proud to remember a time in my life when time and freedom seemed more precious to me than at any other. We should always remember that freedom is not free, that others in this world suffer oppression  and that men like my husband, and my son, are willing to sacrifice their time and their lives to protect our freedom. Freedom is sacred. I am proud to be an American always, but today, when I remember what my husband and many more like him all over the world came together to do, to free the people of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, I am especially proud of them and that I was even a small part of that time in history.