The Loss of Pedro 66

“Soldier Antlers” by Lydia Komatsu

Last fall, I began drafting a new essay inspired by Dust to Dust, the Benjamin Busch memoir. There was this passage in which Busch recalled the moment of his mother’s death to cancer, only a year after his father Frederick Busch died. Reading that passage will always be for me the moment I knew I could go deeper with my writing. I won’t give anything away or quote the stunning prose – you need to read the entire work for yourself – but Busch does this magic trick in which he slows the moment of her passing. That, I thought, is how I would like to write.

Essay writing is a labor of love, as is any act of creativity. I’ve always taken this to mean “unrequited,” but lately learned it just means you must love what you are writing about. The situation must be near to you, precious enough to drive you to the page, tilting at the quixotic question: What does all this mean to me?

The essay began as a foray into the connection between my running and my wars, but ended up leading me down unexpected paths until when I finished and realized this is less about running than it is about loss and memory. Some of this was just evolution. Nonfiction to me was history books and journalism; but as I read and wrote through my first year of a Master’s Degree in Creative Nonfiction Writing, that word “creative” became more and more important.

In writing, we talk about what happened as “the situation.” It’s the who, what, where, when, why, and how of things. The “story” is how we choose to write about those things in order to bring forth what felt most true. When Pedro 66 went down five years ago on this date, the story was obscured to me for the longest time. I knew what happened to a certain extent, the situation that enveloped it. But I could not find the what it meant, and without that in hand, I couldn’t find a way to write about it beyond the chronology of events that exposed in me a raw grief.

Reading Dust to Dust taught me that the understanding the story isn’t about having the answers; rather, it’s about the pursuit. Seeking truth is the story in some cases, and to write in such a way as to illuminate it like Ben Busch did, well, I’d say that’s a good goal for an essay.  I don’t know why Mike Flores, Joel Gentz, and Ben White had to die on June 9th, 2010, but I do know that their deaths were meaningful to me. What went through their minds in their final moments can never be known, but that won’t stop me from trying to imagine it, even if it’s painful to do so. I will forever be in front of their caskets as long as I’m at the page.

Blue Skies, Brothers

Capt David Wisniewski, Pilot
1Lt Joel Gentz, CRO
TSgt Michael Flores, PJ
SSgt David Smith, FE
SrA Benjamin White, PJ

The Burden of Command

20120914-125426.jpgTwo weeks ago was the third anniversary of Pedro 66. Mike Flores, Ben White, and Joel Gentz are still gone but never forgotten. In the past weeks, as I anticipated the day, I reminisced about a couple things – doing a “backcountry” travel day with Flo and the guys up on Mt Lemmon in some truly awful snow conditions; Ben showing up at the 48th with a busted leg and me telling him to heal up because the unit needed him; and driving in to Shaw AFB the morning of June 9th, 2010, and hearing an NPR report about a helicopter shot down in Afghanistan.

But what’s been most on my mind is how something like Pedro 66 begins to fit into the narrative of my life and career. I’ve been in this business for 14 years now, and all my career I heard other officers talk about this thing called “the burden of command.” As it was explained to me, it meant all or some of the following:

– You’re the first to show up to work and the last to leave

– You’re the guy who takes the blame when things go bad, but get none of the credit when things go right

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Remembering Pedro 66

Mike and Ben

I’m pretty sure everyone who reads this blog knows why I wear the bracelet in this photo. If you’re new, it’s my way of remembering two PJs who at one time, worked under my command, and perished when their USAF rescue helicopter, call sign “Pedro 66″ was shot down on June 9th, 2010. Mike Flores and Ben White weren’t the only ones who died that day, either. Dave Wisniewski, Dave Smith, and Joel Gentz, the first CRO to die in combat; none of them came home that day. When I found out, I had moved to another job in South Carolina, and I worked deployed USAF rescue issues. I got into the office, and one of the guys sat me down and told me we lost one of our helos, and some PJs were dead. I made some calls, and learned that Mike and Ben were gone.

Sometimes I wonder why I took it so hard. I wasn’t super close to either. Mike was one of my troops for well over a year, but Ben had just shown up to the unit before I left, so I didn’t know him that well. At the end of the day, all I can come up with is shared experience of the Continue reading

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