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Recently I had the extraordinary opportunity to fly with the Blue
Angels (see my column, “Pocket Rocket”
). When I heard there had been a Blue Angel accident I was upset.
Early reports indicated two aviators had been killed, and one airplane
had crashed. Those facts exacerbated my concern. The Blue Angels only
have one F/A-18 Hornet with two seats, and that is the plane that
had dragged me through the sky a few weeks earlier.

My immediate thoughts and prayers went to Lt. Keith Hoskins and his
family. I have done too much and been too many places to be easily
impressed, but Lt. Hoskins impressed me. Beyond his skill,
professionalism, physical and mental capacities, he personifies what the
Blue Angels are all about … the best of the best. The Navy’s poster
boys … the superior standard wannabees could and should strive to
attain. His joy of flying was barely overshadowed by his excitement at
seeing his wife that sunny weekend in San Francisco. I wasn’t only
impressed with Keith … I liked him as a man. The thought that he may
have been killed troubled me deeply.

When I eventually learned he had not been one of the two navy
aviators killed, I experienced a brief moment of relief. But wait up
… those two men who did die were just like Keith. Lt. Cmdr. Kieron
O’Connor and Lt. Kevin Collings did die. I didn’t know them personally,
but grief came flooding back immediately after that momentary respite.
The Blue Angels, the Navy, the country, and two families have lost
irreplaceable treasures. The tears I had saved for Lt. Hoskins I shed
for his comrades.

Military personnel train to do dangerous stuff. Murphy’s Law
conspires routinely with the Laws of Probability to guarantee that
soldiers, sailors, Marines and aviators die in training. I have lost
friends and associates in training fatalities; stuff happens. However,
it never diminishes the personal grief and loss one experiences. It is
too often easy to hear of one of these training accidents and shrug it
off as a mere sadness because it doesn’t impact directly on you or your
family. However, any uniformed death, regardless of how detached you
may feel you are from it, does impact on you, your family, and your
country.

July 14, 1971, I was at Fort Benning, Ga. We were engaged in a Field
Training Exercise and practicing Platoons in the Attack. Aggressors
were occupying a hill that my unit was assaulting. There was a lot of
blank ammunition being expended, and grenade simulators and artillery
simulators exploding. The aggressors also had the advantage of tactical
air support, and they used it. The forward edge of the battle area
(that’s were my unit was) was getting strafed by Air Force go-fast
jets. We’d get half way up the hill (since the blanks being shot at us
didn’t slow us down) and out of nowhere would come a roar and these jets
would dive over our heads and climb back out of sight.

It was make believe, but even though we were not actually getting
shot at, EVERYONE dove for cover. The lane grader (referee) walked
around tapping guys on the back and informing them, “You’re dead!”

After the third aerial buzzing we remembered the class on fire and
maneuver and as half the platoon fired at the bad guys, the rest of us
ran toward the objective. The next hour of my life is chiseled into my
soul.

I didn’t really hear the noise as much as I felt it. I was knocked
off my feet by what felt like a giant mattress striking my whole body.
For a short period I couldn’t hear, and I was blinking through dust and
dirt to see what had happened.

What had happened was the lead pilot of our aggressor tactical air
support had come in too low (some say about 50 feet off the ground) and
experienced some mechanical hiccup. His jet had crashed one air second
from our position. Fate and one second had saved my life and the lives
of everyone on that hill.

As I was counting noses and checking that my people were all present
and more or less OK, the lane grader grabbed me and told me to follow
him. I had been wearing a shoulder-mounted radio (AN/PRC-77) and we
needed to talk to “someone.” The lane grader, one other soldier and
myself ran into the small fire to our south.

There was a charred patch of Georgia hillside a little bigger than a
football field around 200 yards away. The fire was small since
apparently there had not been much fuel left in the ill-fated jet. As
we were running through the smoke and trying to talk on the radio we
heard someone had reported seeing a parachute.

We found the parachute and shrouds fully extended lying on the
ground. At the end of the risers was the body of the pilot. He looked
strangely peaceful but different. I won’t share the details of his
massive injuries. However, when a jeep drove into the diminishing fire,
we rolled the body into his parachute, and I sat on the hood of the
Jeep. The body was lifted into my lap and I cradled it for the ride
back to a staging area away from the fire where a helicopter was
waiting. It didn’t feel like a man in my arms.

After the medevac had taken the body from me, it was kind of weird.
I was covered from chin to ankles in sticky blood. It was then my mind
started to work as adrenaline subsided. That parachute full of warm
meat, the drying blood saturating my fatigues had been a man.

I later learned he had been an Air Force major with two tours in
Vietnam and four rows of ribbons. He left behind a wife and two
children. It struck me at the time wasteful that an experienced combat
fighter pilot who had survived two combat tours should die as a training
tool, trying to give a gaggle of green Army officers insight into the
business of combat. I thought it a tragic loss not just to his family,
the military or the country, but to those future pilots and green Army
officers who would never have the opportunity to either learn from his
experience or see his smile.

Although I am routinely disappointed, offended, and angry at many of
the individuals who constitute the collective of our government, I love
my country. Duty, Honor, and Country not only still have meaning, but
also constitute the essence of what I am, and what I will always be –
for good or ill.

I am deeply saddened by the loss of Lt. Cmdr. O’Connor and Lt.
Collings. I extend my most sincere and heartfelt condolences to the
families of those two men, and to the entire Blue Angels organization.
I hope that many of you would not only keep these men in your thoughts
and prayers, but also include every soldier, sailor, marine, and airman
who wear a uniform and defend a republic which allows lesser men to
maintain the illusion of freedom and liberty.

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