It was about two months into my second deployment in 2006 when I was assigned to fly a mission to al-Qa’im, near the Syrian border. I had been so glad when I learned I was flying to this desolate outpost, because I had heard a rumor that I could hardly believe. I had endured numerous months of compartmentalizing what I saw and only focusing on the task at hand. When we arrived and shut down the aircraft, I headed straight to the chow hall. As I approached the door to the small, rickety wooden structure, I saw the words “Winchester Hall” above the entrance. It made me smile ear to ear. I was nervous though, wondering about the rumor. I walked in the front door and looked around. There, just inside and to the upper left of the main entrance, was a glass case. Inside it, there it was—a big, bright-blue football jersey with white block letters on the chest: NAVY 73.
It was the Navy football jersey of Ron Winchester (USNA 2001). He had been a teammate, killed in action in Iraq in September 2004, a few months prior to my first deployment. Navy football is a brotherhood, built through strong bonds among teammates. Ron was the first person I knew who had given his life during the conflict. His death was shocking; I had a hard time absorbing that he was actually gone. It was one of those things that people never think will happen to someone they know. Two months later, J. P. Blecksmith (USNA 2003), another teammate, was killed in action. Other teammates, Bryce McDonald (USNA 2003) and Scott Swantner (USNA 2001), suffered injuries. I received telephone calls about all of them. My reaction to seeing Ron’s jersey was immediate and uncontrollable. I turned away and walked outside so the other pilots and crew chiefs wouldn’t see me.
Here, in this God-forsaken shithole of a place that looks like the surface of the moon, was the most beautiful thing I had seen in a long time. I pulled myself together by focusing my eyes on the metallic band around my left wrist that bears Ron’s name. I wore the band during all three of my deployments to Iraq. Every time it was hot, things were shitty, or I didn’t think I could do another day of the grind, I’d look at my wrist and be reminded of the numerous people, like Ronnie and J.P., who had counted on us on a daily basis.
Once I had pulled myself together, I walked back in, had a little something to eat, and then walked over to the glass case. I left Ronnie a note on the glass thanking him for his sacrifice and letting him know it had not been in vain. I also left him one of the squadron patches that we wear on our flight suits. At some point, he had been in the back of a CH-46 being CASEVAC’d while mortally wounded or his remains were transported via an “angel” transport to al-Taqaddum, where Mortuary Affairs was located.
Angel transport was a routine part of my squadron’s mission, so I knew that there was absolutely no delay in getting the remains of coalition personnel killed in action to al-Taqaddum. On the day they perished, the deceased were transported there and prepped for the return home. These missions were flown nightly, and like CASEVACs, I had to learn to compartmentalize and focus on the task at hand. One mission in particular, though, momentarily broke through the compartment.
I had been assigned to transport five Marines out of Ramadi who died in an IED blast. As we flew in, the entire Marine battalion that operated out of Ramadi was off to the right of the landing zone, standing in formation, at attention. After they brought four of the remains to the aircraft on stretchers, someone handcarried the remains of the fifth Marine in two body bags to the helicopter. When we had landed, the battalion’s commanding officer had come on board the aircraft to tell us that one of his Marines was going to accompany the remains back to al-Taqaddum. Passengers and “angels” were never on the same aircraft together, but in this case an exception was made. The Marine accompanying one of the bodies back was the deceased Marine’s twin brother.
Several months after seeing Ronnie’s football jersey in the chow hall at al-Qa’im, disaster struck within my squadron: Morphine 1-2, one of the call signs of our aircraft, was shot down by a man-portable air defense shoulder-fired missile near Karma while returning from a CASEVAC mission on February 7, 2007. Capt. Jennifer Harris (USNA 2000), 1st Lt. Jared Landaker, Sgt. Travis Pfister, Sgt. James Tijerina, Cpl. Thomas Saba, HM1 Gilbert Minjares, and HM3 Manuel Ruiz all perished. These individuals had saved hundreds of other people’s lives flying CASEVAC missions before giving up their own.
As I considered my time as a member of the Purple Foxes, I realized that the hardest part was the mental aftermath. I would lie in bed after a mission, alone with my thoughts. I recalled everything in detail—the sights, smells, radio calls, and what the weather was like. I felt somewhat responsible for any deaths although there wasn’t anything else I could have done. I thought about the fact that that person had a mom and dad who did not yet know what horrible thing had happened to their son or daughter. I wondered about the person who had just made the ultimate sacrifice.
It’s a mixture of emotions. I felt great about what we were doing, because we were saving lives, yet there were times when I knew that those who survived an incident were at the beginning of a painful postwar life. I often wondered about those whom we flew out of harm’s way because we never saw them again. Were they upset about their situation? Did they wish that they had not lived because their life from that point on would be so different and difficult? Were they glad they had survived despite their injuries? Were any of them like Lieutenant Dan from the movie Forrest Gump, who hated Tom Hanks’s character for rescuing him, forcing him to live life in a wheelchair instead of letting him die on the battlefield?
These thoughts weighed on my conscious for a long time, and then on October 21, 2008, I received the answer to some of the questions that I had been afraid to share with anyone. On that day, I received an email from another pilot with whom I had done the first two deployments to Iraq. He said that he had received an email from one of the Navy nurses who had flown with us during the second deployment. An Army sergeant by the name of John Kriesel was trying to get in touch with the squadron. Our squadron had CASEVAC’d him on December 2, 2006, in Zaidon, south of Fallujah, after the vehicle he was in struck a pressure-plate IED wired with two hundred pounds of explosives. It left a crater seven feet wide and four-and-a-half feet deep. One person died at the scene, and another died in the helicopter, but Sgt. Kriesel survived. Now, two years later, Sgt. Kriesel was searching for the crew, flown by a USNA 2000 grad, that had picked up him and his men that day. He wanted to tell us the following: