Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Oh Death, I Found Your Sting

I’m not a “hearing voices” kind of guy, but this night seemed to be the exception. Much to my dismay, there was a body in the back of my helicopter, and it was talking to me.

“You’re going to crash and die,” it said.

I had always felt like I had a pretty good handle on death as a concept. Both my paternal grandparents died when I was growing up, and I feel like I coped with those experiences fairly well. I was appropriately disturbed, but then got over it. You see I’ve been going to church since I was a fetus, and that religious background has encouraged me to actually look forward to death, although if I’m honest with myself I have to say that I’ve always thought that sounded like the sort of concept you would hold onto if you didn’t enjoy living as much as I did. I am rather fond of living. It’s actually right at the top of my list of favorite things to do, and I have a hard time feeling guilty for that. But the idea of not doing it was something that I could handle too, or at least so I thought. As it turns out, nothing gives you an up close and personal reminder of your own mortality like an up close and personal look at somebody else’s.

On this particular night I was on the schedule to fly a normal “battlefield circulation” mission, which for us meant moving lots of random people (we’ll call them Bob from Accounting) and random things here and there around the northern half of Iraq. While we did occasionally get tasked to perform some necessary functions like resupply or delivering repair parts, our cargo usually tended towards the mundane. We carried everything from cheerleaders to dog food (seriously) to the General in charge of All the Important Things in Iraq. I couldn’t tell you what we were supposed to carry this particular night, but it’s a safe bet it wasn’t terribly important, and I can say with all certainty that it wasn’t as important as what we ended up carrying.

I was on the night shift, so I showed up to work along with my co-night shifters in the middle of the afternoon. Shortly after arriving we got the word there had been an “incident.” This particular gem of Army jargon is generally used only for something serious, but can mean anything from a minor maintenance issue to a catastrophic crash. The specific connotation can generally be found in the inflection of the person who announces said incident. This afternoon the inflection was grave, as was the palpable emotional pallor that had set quickly over the squadron.

As it turned out, this particular incident involved the death of two pilots. All we were told at the time was that it seemed there had been some sort of malfunction in the aircraft’s engine, from which the pilots were unable to recover.

Whenever this sort of thing happens, there is an investigative team sent to the site of the crash immediately. As soon as possible a recovery team is also sent. Our commander called the flight crew that I was a part of into the unit’s office and told us as a group that the plan was for a Medivac unit to recover the bodies, but that there was a small chance that we would be tasked with the mission. After letting the possibility sink in for a moment, he asked us each whether we would have a problem with that. One by one the pilots and crew chiefs said they were fine with it. When he came to me, my response was that I would actually prefer it were us and judging by the way the rest of the crew immediately agreed, I wasn’t the only one who had been thinking that we should be the ones picking up our own fallen comrades. Less than a half an hour later we were headed out to the aircraft and within an hour from notification we were in the air.

The group of people I was working with at the time was an extraordinary group of individuals. It was generally a younger crew, although there was an appropriate smattering of experience as well. Any given night, the in-flight discourse would normally range from the inane to the obscene but would be generally hilarious and mostly continuous. The great thing about hanging out with pilots and helicopter maintainers is that aviation inherently attracts a certain kind and caliber of individual and these are some of my favorite people to be around. A quiet group, however, they are not. Except for tonight. Not an unnecessary word was spoken the entire flight down.

“Before takeoff check’s complete,” “Redcon-1,” “Clear left,” and then the mandatory radio calls were pretty much the extent of the dialogue.

When we arrived at our destination, the somber tone continued as we shut down and waited on the ramp. We had been given a sheet of paper with the protocol to follow for occasions like this and we studied it together. There wasn’t a lot for us to do, only a couple of requirements for what was supposed to happen while the bodies were being loaded – honors rendered, etc, but we were all intent on doing it right. I suspect our part of the process seemed especially important because with all of the emotion packed into what we were doing it was helpful to hold on especially tight to what we could control.

Through this point I felt intently the import of this mission. The honor of what I was being asked to do was not lost on me (and still to this day I consider this flight to be by far the most important mission I flew during the whole deployment). There were no Bobs from Accounting tonight. Tonight we were to carry two fallen soldiers – heroes in every sense of the word. They had given the ultimate sacrifice for their country (for me, even), and to be allowed to carry these fallen warriors on the first leg of their long trip back to their loved ones felt immensely important. It wasn’t until the ambulance pulled up that things started to get really personal.

After waiting about twenty of the longest sort of minutes on the tarmac, a convoy of four vehicles came into view. It was clear by the flashing lights and slow speed that this was the conveyance vehicle we were waiting for. All desert nights tend to be gloomy, but this one’s illumination matched its emotional tone well by being particularly black, so the flashing lights of the ambulance seemed like a bit of an intrusion into the otherwise peaceful darkness. It was cool and breezy too – maybe it was just my emotions projecting themselves onto our surroundings, but tonight even the weather seemed to be reverent.

Like every combat mission, we had two aircraft and a crew of two pilots and two crew chiefs for each aircraft. Because part of the protocol we had been given was for the crew to be in a formation outside the helicopter while the bodies were loaded, each crew had formed up outside our respective aircraft. The first indication that things were going to be more hands-on than we’d expected was when one of the people who had gotten out of one of the four vehicles motioned us all over.

When we got to the ambulance, the first thing that went through my head was the lunacy of the fact that I still had my flight helmet on, and the second was that I couldn’t possibly take it off, despite the fact that because it was a flight helmet, it was specifically designed to keep sound out of my ears. The stupid protocol that was supposed to have told us all we needed to know about how to do this mission in the first place had told us that we were supposed to wear our helmets through the whole process. I suppose this is out of respect, but the affect it had on me was that hearing the instructions of the Sergeant Major who was apparently in charge of this operation was pretty much out of the question. So I found myself craning to catch a word of instruction here and there, cursing my inability to read minds, and hoping that the Sergeant Major would release us quickly so we could go back to our expected roles of reverent bystanders. To my dismay, apparently enough of the rest of the crew had apparently developed lip reading skills at some point in their lives to know what was going on, because they began taking their place as if they were going to actually play some part in taking the bodies out of the ambulance.
I still don’t know how it happened, but somehow, someone had taken the fact that we were here to “transport the bodies” to mean that we were going to physically carry the bodies onto the helicopter. This, I was not prepared for.

The situation worsened: as the ambulance was a military vehicle, it did not have bells or whistles, which I now know includes rolling gurneys, so we were to transport these warriors, these heroes, by hand, on simple litters, I’m sure the very same ones that have been used since the World Wars. In hindsight, I suppose it’s fitting that their conveyance should connect them to those that have fallen before them, but mostly at the time it felt irreverent, as if the bodies these brave souls had departed deserved more. The crew of our sister ship somehow got tasked to take the first body, so my crew watched as they attempted to extract the bodies from the vehicle – not a physically easy task, while maintaining as high a level of respect as possible. The apparent difficulty was confirmed for me when it was our turn.

The body was heavier than I expected. Even with four strong men, one on each corner of the litter, it took a good amount of effort to get the litter off the ambulance, although I’m sure the emotional weight of the situation added to the perceived physical exertion. As long as I live I will never forget the walk to the aircraft. It was only about 30 yards, but this is when I started hearing the voice in my head.

“You’re going to crash and die.”

It wasn’t a literal voice, of course, or at least that’s what I’m going to tell the psych evaluator if he asks. It was more of a subconscious inference. I feel confident that if this had been the body of any other type of soldier, the experience would have been significantly different, but I could hear this particular voice speaking to me because like me, he was a pilot. This man (the body carried by our sister ship was a female) could have easily been me, and he was simply bringing to the surface a repressed feeling that I should be doing something else with my life.

Because being a pilot is a relatively dangerous profession, we are encouraged early on in our professional development to develop callousness towards the fact that our job could lead directly to our death. I think it’s fair to say that the innate qualities that point a man or woman towards being a pilot probably include a predilection towards a feeling of invincibility. Even in flight school we are shown videos of terrible fatal helicopter crashes and I think the general response to them is, “Well, sucks for that guy, but I’m too good a pilot for that to happen to me.” That’s easy to say sitting in a classroom watching a YouTube video. Carrying the body bag of a man who I had passed in the hallway countless times, whose smile I still remember as being luminous, whose pleasant laugh was both infectious and always at the ready, I could feel my ten year career’s worth of feelings of invincibility shatter, and because this invincibility had been so necessary to making it through my day to day life, the splinters were lodged pretty deep in my psyche. It’s amazing how the physical act of carrying this body had so quickly turned this mission from being an extreme honor to a significant emotional event. But it had.

I didn’t cry (yet – that would come two days later when I finally got to hear my wife’s voice for the first time after the incident), but my heart was heavier than it had been since I had left home. My first thought was of my wife. I immediately judged myself for the recent stress I had put her under. My thoughts then turned to my children; thinking of what their future would be like had I been the carried rather than the carrier. When the walk to the aircraft was over and the body was secured appropriately, we took off and headed home. This flight was silent verbally, but deafening emotionally. It took us fifteen minutes to get home, and I couldn’t get over the message this body was sending me.

I started coming around when we finally reached Mosul airfield where we were stationed, and shut down in a particular spot that had been prepared for us. Around seventy or eighty soldiers were waiting for us, mostly consisting of the Troop these particular pilots had been a part of, joined by representatives from the entire squadron. As we shut down, the soldiers there formed two lines stretching out towards the two aircraft, facing each other, with enough room in between them for the bodies to be carried. The crews got out of the aircraft and stood on both sides of each cargo door. Here, fortunately, there were mortuary affairs personnel to oversee the conveyance, a wheeled gurney, and pre-chosen pallbearers. As the body was removed feet first from our aircraft, our crew rendered a slow salute. Again I felt viscerally the extreme honor of what I was doing. And something about the solidarity of those present helped make the whole thing ok.

It was as the body was making its way down the fifty foot aisle way formed by the saluting soldiers that it occurred to me that all of this pomp and ceremony wasn’t for the fallen soldiers, it was for the men and women rendering honors. Whether or not I had been picked to hand carry this body tonight, it would have eventually spoken to me. I might not have heard it until the memorial service that was held a few days later. I might not have heard it until we got home and it surfaced unexpectedly. But it would have come. Tonight’s ceremony was a chance to begin the closure process. And having had my own time together with this warrior’s remains not only provided the opportunity to make its message to me real, but it made it real in a way that I could address it. It gave me the chance to talk back.

By the time the gurney was reaching the end of the aisle, ending this leg of its journey that I had shared, the inferred message was still heard.

“You’re going to crash and die,” it still called.

“I think what you mean to say is, I am going to die. Someday.”

And while that’s still not something I look forward to, it’s something I can at least be ready for.

Written in memory of CPT Marcus Alford and CW2 Billie Jean Grinder. The fallen warrior on my aircraft was CPT Alford. A fund has been set up for the two children he left behind. You can donate to the CPT Marcus R. Alford Sr. Memorial Scholarship Fund by sending a check to or contacting Regions Bank-Village Green Branch, 1144 Nashville Pike, Gallatin, TN 615.452.5063.


  1. One of the most poignant things you've ever written. We're all so glad you're headed home and while extremely jarring, am glad you were able to experience something so intimate with your commrades.

  2. Marc
    My father, father-in-law, brother-in-law, husband and several friends all served in the armed forces, and over the years I have heard many stories. But your writings have been very personal showing emotions that many would not want to share. Thank you for your words that help the rest of us understand just how great a sacrifice many men and women have made. I am sorry that you had to experience this, and I pray that the Lord will use it in a positive way in your life. Thank you again. We love you and are glad you are headed home! Your fallen friends and their families have been in my prayers.
    Aunt Kathy

  3. Marc
    I received your blog "OH DEATH,I FOUND YOUR STING" from my Daughter-in-law. My Son is a pilot in your unit and played a lot of basketball with Marcus and he knew Billie Jean well. There is a bond between Airmen that runs deeper than most people will ever experience. I don't know how to explain it, but it exists. Even when something so tragic happens to our fellow aviators we have never met, or shared our piloting experiencies with, we feel the pain and sting just the same as we know they would feel if it was our time to "Fly West". Thank you for writing so eloquently on so difficult a subject for you and your fellow pilots. I know just how you felt and Thank You for your service..

  4. Marc, I have shared your patriotism and respected your courage and commitment. Tonight I realize there are things that go along with that which possibly only a fellow soldier can understand. Thank you for your service - for the service of all those who protect us and our freedom. I am selfishly glad you are headed home to my daughter and your babies! Mom