Heartbreak on America’s Frontlines

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My days of flight suits and life saving missions soon fade to classroom lectures and stacks of overpriced textbooks. I am a veteran now and study at a community college in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The post-9/11 GI Bill so far exceeds my expectations. The monthly housing allowance and book stipend smooth the transition to civilian life. I have not thought much about my six years of Coast Guard service. It is in the past, as are the dedicated men and women whom I served with.

A memorial service for the lost aircrew members of CG-1705
Photo: Todd Vorenkamp/Flickr/cc-by-2.0

A Coast Guard petty officer makes final preparations for the memorial ceremony for the Coast Guard and Marine Corps aircrews killed in the Oct. 29, 2009, midair collision.

Friday, October 30, 2009, I sleep in, relieved that the school week is over. I stumble into the living room and flick on the television. The 12:00 news is on. I sprawl out and let the TV pander to me.

A few minutes later, a grim-faced Coast Guard captain is speaking at a press conference. I soon realize that a Coast Guard C-130 rescue plane and a Marine helicopter on a training mission collided mid-air off the Southern California coast the night before.

Saturday morning, the Coast Guard releases the names of the seven crew members aboard the C-130. I sit in disbelief. I served with every one of them.

It seems like all we ever hear about in the news are tragic events and people dying. I must have watched or read more than a dozen stories in the past year about soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. But when someone you know dies, your heart sinks to your knees and your throat dries up. I knew the faces of these brave Coast Guardsmen. I remember their voices, their cheerful smiles and the many conversations we shared over dinner.

These were people I deployed with, shared laughs with and stood duty with. They were my second family, a family committed to the safety and well-being of others.

Nothing in life is guaranteed. I flew on the bright orange-and-white rescue planes for more than four years, and every time my crew and I returned safely. I never thought that one day a crew would leave and never return. I now feel that those four years of my life were a fast-paced game of chance. Every time military aircrews wake up, they face the world and the dangerous missions they must complete.

How ironic this tragic event really was. Six young men and one woman were on a search and rescue mission looking for a boater in distress. Instead, they and two brave Marines became the subject of a futile search and rescue mission as their lives were sacrificed for the life of one. It was a disastrous day for the U.S. military, and a heartbreaking reminder that the frontlines of U.S. safety and security begin at the shores of America.

The author served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 2003–2009. He is now a student at Sierra College and plans to transfer to a California state university as a criminal justice major.

(Published January 3, 2010, on New America Media)