The Watermelon in Her Grandfather's Eye
In August 2008, after another fun-filled day at the office processing personal injury claims, I was driving home from Raleigh when a random call came through on my cell. I was not in the habit of answering my cell if I didn’t recognize the number, but Megan had lost her phone in Hawaii while on deployment and I was answering all calls. Megan who had been in the Navy almost four years was assigned to the Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron Fourteen out of Norfolk, Virginia. She was part of two crews flying two H-53 Sea Dragons (Sirkosky H-53 Series Helicopters) cross county. I understood they would be fueling periodically and hadn’t expected to hear from her until that evening.
I had just crossed the overpass of Interstate 540 and was approaching Norwood Road. I made the transition onto Norwood and pulled over to a roadside stand that had landscape plants for sale for the new homeowners in the area. Azaleas of every color were situated in neat rows to better attract the commuters. My appreciation of the painstaking efforts by the vendor to entice buyers was about to be lost in the forthcoming minutes.
“Hey, Mija!” (short for “my daughter” Mi Hija. Spanish) I answered, sure that my surprise registered in my voice.
“Mom!” Her voice was high pitched and full of laughter. “I am in the middle of some farmers field in…wait a minute…” she paused.
“Where are we?” she asked someone nearby. ” Mississippi? We’re in Mississippi, Mom!”
“What?” I asked, at first not understanding why she wasn’t certain where she was. Next breath, my worst fears, suppressed since the day she chose to be an aircrewman, eating at the edge of memories.
“We had to put down the “bird”,” she explained, using her vernacular for the helicopter. “We landed in the middle of some farmer’s, I don’t know what this is, field, I guess. You should have seen his face! He came out on a four-wheeler with his shotgun and his dog!”
“Ok, so you are not supposed to call me when you have to emergency land,” I responded even-toned, feeling anything but. It wouldn’t do to get excited. She was fine. She was on the other end of the line.
Breathe, Liz. She’s on the other end of the line.
“You are supposed to call your mother, after you’ve been rescued, taken to the clinic, examined and released!” I said, trying to keep the emotion out of my voice. I was looking at the pots of boxwood, crepe myrtle, azalea and gardenia plants lined neatly under an awning, but I was seeing a large corn/milo/soy field stretched far before me with the huge beautiful Vanguard Sea Dragon sitting still, blades silent, a trail of smoke wafting upward to the blue sky. The same blue sky I was under.
Hours later, in lodging for the night, Megan spoke to her Dad. I watched patiently from my perch on the couch, as he listened intently. My only indication of how serious it was, was when his eyebrows lifted, but took forever to descend. She had been sleeping when a vibration and knocking sounds woke her up. Where she had been resting was situated half-way between the middle of the bird and the cockpit. The other “maintainers” (maintenance crew) were still sleeping but the crew member toward the front of the cabin and pilot heard what she heard and could feel vibrations coming from the left side of the helicopter. When she started to move forward, flames started shooting to the ground of the cabin from overhead. The only reason she could see the flames was that there happened to be a hole in the airframe that had not been sufficiently patched. She pulled the fire extinguisher off the deck of the bird, gave it to her crew chief who went to work on the flames. During this time, the pilot and co-pilot are looking for a safe place to land and picked a field somewhere in Mississippi. The second helicopter landed nearby as all the crew from the damaged helicopter exited and allowed the bird to wind down.
The farmer, who owned the field, came out to investigate, in his overalls, on his ATV with his dog and his shotgun. After the crews identified themselves and updated the farmer on the problems, they secured the damaged bird before they all boarded the functioning H-53 and continued to the base in Tennessee. The wounded bird remained behind until a maintenance crew could be flown back to work on it from the Naval Base in Norfolk.
A couple of days after the incident I drove to Norfolk to a soccer game where Megan was scheduled to play on her co-ed team. Emergency land an H-53, life continued, and soccer was on the calendar. I wanted to put eyes on her. As she played, a friend of hers who was also a mechanic in the same squadron handed me a small packet of pictures. I looked at them, understanding and not understanding what I was seeing. A clutch had disengaged from the gearbox located above the cabin. Fuel and oil power these behemoths that weigh around 33,000 pounds empty. Her friend was silent as I flipped through the photos, pausing to look at what once had been the gearbox.
“She did good.” He told me when I silently handed the pictures back. “No one got hurt”. The entire crew received the 2008 NHA Region FOUR, Aircrew of the Year (Non-Deployed) Award. She gave it to me, as she has done with all her paperwork, reenlistments and evaluations for safekeeping. She dismissed my praise after I read it.
“I did exactly what I was trained to do. We all did.”
I would remember that exchange years later, when an H53 Sea Dragon crashed off the coast of Virginia on January 8, 2014. For my daughter, now almost ten years in service, the threat of deconstruction loomed. She knew each of them. She trained two of them. She had flown with all of them.
“I trained them. I trained them how to handle this sort of emergency. I can’t help but think I missed something” she told me her voice low and clear, but her eyes just missed meeting mine. I had seen that haunted look before.
That evening when I told Chester about her remark, it took him a moment to comment. When he did, his voice was low and clear, as Megan’s had been earlier.
“You train with folks. You believe you have people who are going to be all right under fire. You believe you are going to be all right under fire. But you don’t know. You don’t really know until the moment you are under fire who you are and who you have next to you. Training is just that. Training. It’s supposed to kick in under emergency and life-threatening circumstances, but you don’t know who you have next to you until it does.”
It had been an accident of a different sort. It mattered not to those who knew these men, those who worked, lived, loved and drank with these men. Megan withdrew, internalizing her grief, attending the memorial and services alone. I had asked if she wanted her dad or I there with her, but realized though we were her blood family, those men she went to honor and mourn and those she stood with who did the same, were her Navy family. The Squadron tightened ranks during this tragedy, tending to the families of the fallen crew, tending to each other. But the residuals ate at the edges of memories.
Exerpt from Train's Comin' - Our Struggle with PTSD Manuscript.