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Heartbreak on America’s Frontlines

New America Media, Commentary, William McComb Posted: Jan 03, 2010

Editor’s Note: U.S. servicemen and women can pay the ultimate price for the nation’s safety and security at the most unexpected times, in the most unexpected places. William McComb wrote this for the Veterans Workshop, a New America Media writing project for military veterans.

I’m standing on the blistering tarmac at Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento waiting for checklists to begin. The day is shaping up to break the 100 degree mark, so it’s hot, dry and miserable, typical for the summer months in Sacramento. The dense flight suit and heat trapping gloves make me appreciate what a baked potato feels like.

At last the checklist begins with a loud crackle over my headset. I watch closely as the four massive propellers roar to life like windmills on an open plain. I gather up the ICS cord that connects my headset to the aircraft intercom and I hustle inside, making sure that the crew door is safe and secure. Inside the airplane a putrid smell of burning JP5 jet fuel lingers in the air, creating a feeling of disgust in my stomach.

The aircraft commander slips on a pair of mirrored aviator shades, as the blinding sunlight pierces through the flight deck windows. I watch as he pushes the throttles forward, shooting the plane down the runway like a projectile from a catapult. Engines rumbling, our C-130 rescue plane takes flight, bound for the cold whitecaps of the Oregon coast.

Our crew of nine is on another law enforcement mission, looking for suspicious vessels and signs of distress. This is one of my last missions before I separate from the Coast Guard to pursue education.

I am the drop master on this flight with collateral duties as sensor system operator. My job is to deploy life rafts and survival gear, and to operate a high-powered zoom camera. Once airborne, I peek out the large crew window and observe miles of dull flat landscape scorched by the relentless summer heat. Down below, vehicles look like matchbox cars as they race about the interstate. The soft droning of the engines relaxes me as I settle in for a long day.

To my left is my basic aircrew member. He has just transferred over from a helicopter unit in San Diego and is new to C-130 aircraft. At 6’1’’, he is a towering trunk of no-nonsense muscle who spends hours each day perfecting his physique at the gym. He is tough, strong and oozes confidence, quickly learning his duties as a basic aircrew member. I watch as he opens his Coast Guard-issued box lunch and picks at his food until a Snickers bar is revealed. Candy bars and water are the only two things worth eating in these box lunches; the other food is just plain awful.

Eight hours later, an exhausted crew safely returns to the air station. We will go home to share our stories and celebrate the next day of life. Today was a successful day of flight operations. Our cohesive crew upheld the highest standards of the Coast Guard core values: Honor, respect and devotion to duty.

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.

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 dies who you know personally, 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.

Related Articles:

Haunted by 40 Months in Iraq

Terror in a Cloud of Dust

Conduct Unbecoming of the U.S. Army

When Shadows Danced Under a Fading Red Star

The Anger Behind My Blood-Red Sand Goggles

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