Some outlandish and opportunistic claims are made, especially on Veterans Day, including by some veterans, that those who served in the armed forces are the exceptional Americans; the 1%; the best. What’s usually implied, sometimes explicitly stated, is that because veterans made extraordinary commitments and sacrifices for the good of the country, they are the “real Americans.” It’s a poisonous idea that simply isn’t true. Worse, it diminishes the contributions of our fellow, civilian citizens.
This year has been and continues to be, an incredibly dark period for the country. Difficult times naturally push many to turn inward, into their own tribes for emotional and physical shelter. Despite our current circumstances though, everywhere I look I see Americans speaking up and reaching out to help. I instantly recognized these men and women because I’ve seen their unselfish spirits before.
Watching everyday Americans respond takes me back to two tragic nights in Iraq where, as a young officer, I first saw our American light refuse to be overpowered by the darkness.
When the mission fails
I spent most of my career in special operations aviation where we choose the time and place of our nocturnal missions to capture terrorists and insurgents, stacking the deck in our favor wherever possible. But twice my crew got the call nobody ever wants. It’s the call that means something went badly wrong. And in those cases, it was a call to rescue Americans in danger. Unlike our usual operations, we didn’t choose these missions; they chose us.
On May 2, 2005, I was piloting an MH-53 helicopter out of Balad, Iraq, with my crew when the first call came. In the middle of a horrific sandstorm that had canceled our planned mission, two Marine F/A-18 Hornets patrolling over Iraq went missing. Reports indicated that the jets likely collided due to the poor visibility. Hoping to find the pilots, we launched into the inky blackness towards the desert west of Karbala to search with little information.
Eight months later, on Jan. 7, 2006, my wingman and I had just landed at Mosul late in the evening when the call came again. This time an Army UH-60 Black Hawk with 12 people aboard had failed to arrive at Tal Afar, Iraq, its destination. As before, bad weather was to blame. A nasty mix of low-level fog and thunderstorms made it almost impossible to see and navigate. After receiving search coordinates and making a plan, we set off into the murky fog to look for the missing Black Hawk and its passengers.