Virtually lost

By

Earlier that day I’d heard reports of a downed U.S. Navy helicopter in the Red Sea. The status of the crew was unknown, but when Vince posted Landon’s photo on Facebook, I knew.

Landon was a Navy helicopter pilot and Vince was one of his best buds. We’d grown up together in Lompoc, California, a Central Coast town of 43,000 most famous for its flowers, a prison, and Vandenberg Air Force Base.

3:50 p.m. Sept. 22, 2013
I messaged Vince: Something up with Landon?
His reply: Ya. Then: his helo went down in the Red Sea today. Landon and the copilot are missing.
Me: Shit, I heard about the crash. Oh man. Are his folks still in Lompoc?
Vince: Yes, but they are visiting Landon’s wife in San Diego.

Vince: They don’t have much info right now.
Me: They were either trying to take off or land?
Vince: And it went down.

Me: Yea, I saw that… from a ship. Dude, sorry
Vince: Keeping positive thoughts they find ’em ok soon.
Me: Are you in touch with his wife and folks?

Vince: His mom messaged me earlier about it. His anniversary was yesterday.
Me: Man.
Vince: His new son was just born and he hasn’t got to see him yet.

*

I wrote Landon’s mom, “I know it’s been a while, but please know all of you are in our thoughts and prayers. We’re keeping positive thoughts headed your way.”

She wrote back, “Thank you Brandon, keep praying they are still searching, will let you know as soon as we hear.”

I’ve thought about this exchange a lot. This was the first time I’d corresponded with Landon’s mom in 18 years, since high school. I didn’t respond to her message, and I feel bad about that. I’m also curious why I wrote “thoughts and prayers”. I suppose that’s the easiest thing to say even when one doesn’t typically pray. Words are inadequate, and it’s difficult to say anything, especially via a keyboard. At least in person you can look someone in the eyes when you say, I’m sorry.

*

The next afternoon:  The Department of Defense announced today the death of two sailors who were supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

They died on September 22nd, as a result of an MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter crash while operating in the central Red Sea. Both sailors were assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Six at Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, California.

Killed were: Lt. Cmdr. Landon L. Jones, 35, of Lompoc, Calif., and Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan S. Gibson, 32, of Aurora, Ore.

*

Landon wasn’t the first friend I’d lost in my 17-year military career.

*

I didn’t go to Landon’s funeral in Lompoc despite only being six hours away. There’s no good reason for my absence, but I tried to justify it: my family and I just returned from traveling, the last two times I’d returned to my hometown was for funerals. For my father and before that another friend who died in Iraq. I was tired of funerals.

Instead, Landon’s was my first virtual funeral. Sitting in my living room in shorts and a t-shirt, drinking coffee, and shifting my gaze between the screen and out the window to the flawless California sky, I paid my respects to my old high school buddy by way of internet streaming. We had played football and golf together. We’d played soldier out in the woods behind our neighborhood. I used to go to his house and jump on his trampoline. We hung out, talked about cars and eventually, the military. He wanted to attend the Naval Academy, and I yearned for the Air Force Academy, but neither of us had the SAT scores to go direct, so we both attended Northwestern Prep School.

A virtual mourner, I heard people eulogize Landon—friend, brother, high school biology teacher, Navy casualty officer—against the background noise of my kids’ Sponge Bob Squarepants cartoon.

The show’s theme song sang: Are you ready kids? Aye, aye, Captain. I can’t hear you. Aye, aye, Captain. Ohh…Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?

One eulogizer said, “Landon was blessed with dogged determination. Whatever it was, he worked at it until he was successful. If you wanted him to do something, tell him he could not and he would.”

The song continued, If nautical notions be something you wish…

I watched people cry from the privacy of my home. I did not have to deal with my emotions in public.

*

Strangely, the idea of mourning from afar echoed the dilemma of remotely-piloted aircraft and long-distance killing. I thought of the drone pilots flying their missiled aircraft over Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and places unknown from the comfort of their air-conditioned trailers. They drink coffee and fly from cushioned leather chairs, ready to deal death with nothing at risk. When their missions conclude, they debrief the incoming crew, stroll to their cars, and drive the flat desert roads back to their families to resume life.

As an English professor at the Air Force Academy, I heard many cadets say they didn’t want to be drone pilots because something seemed wrong or unfair with the distance between the killer and the killed. They’d say, “It doesn’t feel like an honorable way to fight.” They described an ethical dilemma in killing from afar, a new version of the “morality with altitude” argument, that it’s easier to kill when you can’t see who you’re killing.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, an expert in the study of human aggression and violence, wrote in On Killing, that those involved in long-distance killing “are all protected by the same powerful combination of group absolution, mechanical distance, and…physical distance.”

The difference now, despite their distance, is drone pilots have front row seats to the carnage they create in real-time.

*

Increasingly, drone operators aren’t the only ones who see the carnage of war in real-time. The home front is more connected to the warzone than ever before, and it’s surprising to think that in many ways the nation cares less. Despite the technology, researchers say there’s an ever-increasing military civilian divide largely due to the all-volunteer force.

The military combats the widening gap by funding expansive civic and media outreach programs. Public affairs offices across the services manage dozens of programs: demonstration teams, bands, open houses, tours, flyovers, Hollywood television and movie deals, New York book projects, and media engagements. And, these offices see requests for all types of military support like speakers, honor guards, flag unfurlings, parade appearances, holiday tree lightings, and welcome home events. It’s tough to say how genuine these military recognition events are. Sometimes these spectacles seem all too convenient marketing ploys to capitalize on patriotism and maybe a national guilty conscience.

*

The national guilty conscience manifests in many ways: charities, yellow ribbons, flag paraphernalia, military discounts, military recognition, sayings, and slogans. Dozens of groups send items like cell phones, books, coffee, hugs, pinups, guitars, magazines, toiletries, and prayers to deployed troops.

We appreciate the support. We really do, but maybe as a society we’re all a little too comfortable with the idea of our troops in harm’s way.

Last year, my buddy Omar and I were at lunch in uniform at a skuzzy seafood joint called Harpoon Larry’s. The waitress told us we didn’t have to worry about our tab, that the guy at the bar wearing the Vietnam Vet hat took care of it. We waved and he nodded. On our way out, we said thanks, tried to shake his hand, and he spun out of his barstool, threw his arms around us, and hugged us.

Unfortunately, lunch, kind gestures, and saying “I support the troops,” is not enough. On some level, we’re all culpable in failing to engage in an ongoing and honest national dialogue about our country’s wars, and we need to face this reality. America’s approval rating of the Vietnam War bottomed out at 28% in 1971 after six years of fighting, and some argue this directly led to that war’s demise. America’s approval rating of the Afghanistan War reached 28% in July 2013, after 12 years, and 47,000 U.S. troops are still fighting.

*

Feelings of guilt are better than apathy. At least some level of acknowledgement exists with guilt. I fear at this point our country is more apathetic than guilt ridden. We need to accept the blood on our hands.

*

Sept. 30, 2013

California Governor Jerry Brown ordered flags above the State Capitol lowered to half-staff today in honor of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Landon L. Jones, 35, of Lompoc, California.

I live twenty minutes from the California Capitol. I did not take the time to drive over to honor my friend.

*

afghanistanNow, in the 13th year of America’s longest war, news from the front hums in the background. Like a stealth bomber, the casualties and costs fly beyond the range of most citizens’ attention spans. The slow simmer of dead or wounded and nebulous dollar amounts lie buried in the mainstream media. Only when we know someone serving, deployed, injured, or worse do we really feel the sting of our forever war. They call this odyssey many names—Global War on Terrorism, low-intensity conflict, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, nation building—and we’ll continue to pay for the next two generations.

*

January 7, 2014

I read about four Airmen killed in an Air Force Pave Hawk helicopter crash in England. I’d deployed to Afghanistan with this squadron just six months earlier. The helicopter crew survived their deployment and perished in a training accident.

I knew it’d be at least 24 hours before the Air Force officially released the names of the lost, so I turned to the bro network. I messaged K.C., a friend at Lakenheath, “Hey dude,” and the autocorrect changed “dude” to “dead.” I dropped my phone, stared at the word. I pulled out my camera and photographed the screen. As it turns out, K.C. was okay, but the autocorrect premonition would prove accurate for another friend.

 

Next, I texted Jared, John, and Dave, other guys on that deployment: “Lakenheath pave hawk crashed in England… early reports – 4 dead”

John:  Hitting up a couple guys on FB to check it out.
Jared: Talking to Jason and Hound Dog now.
Dave: Shit…
Jared: Hound Dog talked to Party and they aren’t allowed to say anything yet
Dave: Jesus
John: Fuck
Jared:  fuck fuck fuck
John: what a colossally horrible feeling
Jared: yeah no words
Jared: Sven is ok, Jason just heard from him
Me: Fuck… just went through this in September
Dave: it says Chris was signed into FB 8 minutes ago
John: Barry’s ok too
John: tried writing gunner Justin but he hasn’t responded
Jared: tried Patry, but he hasn’t responded either
Dave: hopefully they’re busy doing their thing
Jared: yeah
Jared: Sven says nothing is confirmed
John: gunner Justin just checked in

 

I teed up a text that I didn’t send: Fellas, if it’s someone we know, please call, don’t want to learn of a loss via text again.

Several hours later, Jared wrote me direct: Hey. On the down low, we know one casualty. Then: It’s a tragic and really hard one to stomach.

Walking alone in the dark, I saw the three dots on my phone’s glowing screen signifying Jared was typing more and quickly replied:  Call?

Too late.

Jared’s text:
Sean brother.
lots of tears tonight.
devastating

*

I only spent a few weeks around Sean. I knew he had a wife and young son. I remember laughing with him in the briefing room about someone’s lame joke. I remember the easy way he worked with his crew. I remember that he didn’t take himself too seriously. I remember a badass photo of him smoking a cigar. I remember fragments of a quick conversation about the costs of war. I wish I remembered more.

*

Jan. 8, 2014

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England — Capt. Christopher S. Stover, Capt. Sean M. Ruane, Tech. Sgt. Dale E. Mathews, and SSgt Afton M. Ponce were the HH-60G aircrew members killed in a crash on the Norfolk coast Tuesday evening.

An HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter carries a four-person aircrew – a pilot, co-pilot, and two special mission aviators who are qualified as both gunners and flight engineers. On this particular mission, Stover and Ruane were the pilots, and Mathews and Ponce were the special mission aviators.

“We continue to think of the loved ones who are experiencing such a tragic, sudden loss,” said Col. Kyle Robinson, 48th Fighter Wing commander. “The Liberty Wing feels as though it has lost members of its family, and we stand by to support one another and these Airmen’s families during this difficult time.”

The accident is currently under investigation, and more details will be released as they become available.

*

I read an interview with Sean’s Dad that mentioned Sean’s just-in-case letter, “In it, Ruane joked about having a Yuengling beer with friends he hadn’t seen in a while, detailed some of his final wishes and told his father that he was his hero.”

Some military units don’t call goodbye notes “just-in-case letters,” but rather “go to hell letters”. Either way, these letters serve as final words to the writer’s loved ones. The writer seals the letter and entrusts a friend, colleague, or commander to pass the letter along should the worst happen.

*

DOD’s most recent statistics show 6,791 killed and 51,809 wounded in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places in the Global War on Terrorism. Landon is number 2,277. His co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan S. Gibson, is 2,278.

Chris, Sean, Dale, and Afton won’t be added to the tally as they died in a training accident outside of a warzone. All of them served in warzones at one point or another.

The New York Times used to post photos of the dead, but they stopped in 2012. Like much of our society, maybe they feel the losses are too low to tally. The Washington Post reported 122 service members died in war in 2013, the lowest number since 2002.

*

During an interview with CNN, Lone Survivor author and former Navy SEAL, Marcus Luttrell said, “We spend our whole lives training to defend this country, and then we were sent over there by this country, and you’re telling me because we were over there doing what we were told by our country that it was senseless and my guys died for nothing?”

Jim Gourley, writer and former military officer, responded in Foreign Policy, “Yes, Marcus. Your friends died in vain. They went selflessly. They fought bravely. They sacrificed nobly. They lived in the best traditions of duty, honor, and country—hallowed words which dictate what every American can and ought to be. But they died in vain for the exact reason that they went where their country sent them and did what their country told them to do. America failed you because it failed its obligation to those principles.”

He said, “When we blithely declare that they did not die in vain, we deface their honor by using it to wipe the blood from our hands. We have lost our collective ability to win a war as well as the strength of character to accept defeat. And in the end, it is those who represent the epitome of that character we lack that pay the price.”

*

Jan. 17, 2014

Two memorial services on opposite sides of the globe honored two of my friends. In San Diego, on the U.S.S. Midway, and on an Air Force Base in England friends and family honored not only Landon and Sean, but also Jonathan, Chris, Dale, and Afton. I did not attend either, and organizers did not stream these services online.

*

I felt like a voyeur watching Landon’s e-funeral, eyeballing friends and family mourning the small-town hero. The camera shifted around the church. The entrance, the podium, a display of items that defined Landon, a slideshow of images, the crowd. The camera kept its distance from the mourners, but you could tell.

Photos of children holding “Your dad is a hero” signs flashed on the screen.

As a long-distance spectator, I didn’t cry and still feel like a bastard for not going. I took breaks from the funeral, walked around my house with nervous energy.

Our 9-year-old twin boys asked to wrestle, build Legos. Our 11-year-old daughter showed me a bracelet she’d made from neon green and pink rubber bands.

Jennifer, my wife, said to her: Don’t bother your Dad. He’s at a funeral!

***

Second Image Credit


Brandon Lingle’s work appears in The New York Times, TIME, The North American Review, Guernica, Epiphany, Slate.com, National Geographic.com, Narrative, and elsewhere. His essays are notables in The Best American Essays 2010 and 2013. An active-duty Air Force officer, he's served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the Art Director and Nonfiction Editor of War, Literature & the Arts. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense or United States government More from this author →