My best friend in college, Greg, was a pretty impressive guy. Besides a wicked sense of humor, he was bright, athletic and fearless. He could have done just about anything.
He chose to be a Marine Corps aviator.
Greg and I parted ways after college when he set out to fulfill that dream. He called me a couple of years later and told me he had graduated second in his flight school class. I told him I was surprised that somebody finally beat him at something.
I was actually proud of Greg’s achievement and excited to learn that his new assignment would bring him home to the Northwest. He was stationed at NAS Whidbey, where he learned to fly the E/A-6B Prowler, a high tech aircraft worth a hundred million per copy.
Along with three other crew members, Greg flew the low level training routes that crisscross the canyons and desert areas of Eastern Washington. Whenever I pictured him in the pilot seat, he would have an ear-splitting grin on his face.
It was a busy time for both of us – new careers, marriages and kids. Somehow we did not find time to hook up that first year. Then I got a phone call from his dad that filled me with the bitter taste of regret.
He told me that Greg was dead.
His plane had an undisclosed mechanical failure during a high speed low level pass, and Greg had been unable to recover. He crashed in the desert, and he and his three crewmates all perished.
His funeral was the saddest moment of my life up to that point. He was one of the best men I’ve ever known, and the looks on the faces of his young son and daughter told me more than I needed to know about loss.
Greg’s story will be familiar to many people who have lost loved ones to military combat or training accidents. Unfortunately, a tragedy almost identical to the one which took Greg’s life occurred Monday when another Prowler crashed on a low level training mission near Spokane. Three crew members were killed.
I can only imagine the crushing heartache descending on their families at NAS Whidbey. Because our service members hail from all regions, the pain of their loss will spread out across the country on tendrils of anguish.
For those of us who have become too insulated from the dangers of military service, Monday’s fatal crash is simply one more reminder of the risky conditions under which our soldiers, sailors and airmen operate, whether at home or abroad.
For me, it was a reminder of the good man and the great friend I lost so many years ago. I still miss him.