5 years after Chinook tragedy in Afghanistan, the healing continues
By COURTNEY MABEUS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: August 6, 2016
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — It was only a few months after the crash that Kevin Houston first showed up in his mother’s dreams.
He came to her on the beach. Jan Anderson was walking with her young grandson, who told her he missed his daddy.
And there was Houston, walking toward them in his trademark white sneakers. As he approached, he turned the boy toward him.
“Daddy’s here,” Anderson recounted her son saying in her dream. “Daddy’s here with you no matter where you go. You might not be able to see me, but I’m always here with you.”
Then Houston handed the boy back to her and walked away.
Today marks five years since a Ch-47 Chinook helicopter – its call sign was “Extortion 17” – was shot down during a nighttime mission to aid Army Rangers fighting insurgents southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 6, 2011. All 38 aboard were killed, including Houston, a chief petty officer and member of the Navy’s elite and notoriously secretive Virginia Beach-based SEAL Team Six.
It was the single deadliest day for Americans in the Afghanistan War, claiming the lives of 17 SEALs, five naval-warfare specialists, five Army aircrew, three Air Force pararescuers and combat controllers, and a military service dog. Seven Afghan commandos and an interpreter also died.
Twenty of the 30 Americans on board were based in Virginia Beach. The attack came just three months after Virginia Beach-based SEALs raided a compound in Pakistan, killing al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden.
In the five years since the crash, some families questioned the government’s narrative of the incident, claiming the attack could have been an inside job. Some also questioned the decision to pack so many elite service members onto one Chinook, a tandem-rotor, heavy-lift helicopter used primarily for moving troops, artillery and supplies.
A congressional oversight committee held a hearing into the matter in February 2014. The parents of four of the service members also filed a $200 million federal lawsuit in 2013 against Vice President Joe Biden and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, accusing them of prompting the attack by divulging that a SEAL team killed bin Laden. The case was dismissed.
Neither hearings nor lawsuits will bring back those who are gone. Memorials, foundations, scholarships and 5K races have sprung up over the past five years to commemorate those killed on Extortion 17. Those events may not fill the void of loved ones lost, but they at least continue their legacies.
“Jon loved what he did, and he was willing to lay down his life for our country,” said Joy McKeekan, of Rockford, Ill., speaking of her brother, Navy Special Operator Petty Officer 1st Class Jon Tumilson.
“If someone had told him when he was boarding that copter that he was going to be shot down, he would have gone on there anyway knowing he had an opportunity to help someone else and save somebody else.”
McKeekan sees an annual 5K run and walk in her brother’s memory in their same-named hometown of Rockford, Iowa, as a way to honor the man who cared deeply for his family, country and community. Tumilson deployed on his birthday, July 1. He would have turned 40 this year.
After Tumilson’s death, a friend who was on his deployment told McKeekan about a conversation the two had shared. Tumilson, who was not married, had hoped to find a deep and loving relationship similar to his parents’ and the one McKeekan shared with her husband, Scott.
“That’s something I will cherish forever because it’s kind of like his last words to us,” McKeekan said.
Joyce Peck, of Lincoln, Neb., is working with another Gold Star mother to raise $18,000 to erect a memorial honoring the state’s 85 service members killed since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Peck’s son, Staff Sgt. Patrick D. Hamburger, was a Nebraska Army National Guard member on his first deployment when he died. Hamburger was a flight engineer who worked on Apaches, Black Hawks and Chinooks. He had books on helicopters that ran thousands of pages and would ask his mother to quiz him.
“He would rattle it off word for word everything that was in there,” Peck said.
A jokester, Hamburger once tried to persuade his base commander to allow a no-pants Thursday, Peck said. When his unit came back from Afghanistan, the command finally allowed it, Peck said.
Now, Peck finds solace in prayer.
“A piece of my heart’s gone,” Peck said. “I knew him before he was born.”
Marie Day, of Las Vegas, has found healing through the tight-knit community of special operators her brother, Petty Officer 1st Class Jared Day, worked with.
Day said she and her parents plan to travel to Virginia Beach for a luncheon for the fallen crew members and will stay to mark what would have been Jared’s 34th birthday on Aug. 12. Day said she didn’t realize until after his death the full impact of the service of her brother, a Navy information systems technician who was working with the SEALs.
“That’s the most healing for us, is to spend time with those guys because they all have the same personality, the same sense of humor,” Day said. “They’re just so much alike. It’s like being with Jared.”
Anderson reeled from the loss of her son, whom she called her “wingman.” She remembered crumpling to the floor when the casualty assistance officers appeared at her door five years ago with the tragic news.
“My brain started blowing up,” Anderson said. She insisted to the officers that they had the wrong house.
Anderson raised Houston and his younger sister, Miranda, in West Hyannisport, Mass. Like some of the others on Extortion 17, Houston grew up dreaming of joining the SEALs.
As a child, he drafted friends for missions. His mother remembered floating on a raft in Hyannis Harbor one night. Houston, then 13, wasn’t supposed to be there. But he popped up out of the dark water next to her, a knife in his mouth. He told her he was practicing to be a SEAL.
It was hard to remain angry, she said.
“I’m like, ‘You are a nut case,’ ” Anderson said. “He was a riot to raise.”
The last time Houston visited his mother’s dreams was shortly after she moved into her new home in Chesapeake in September, Anderson said.
He was standing with his hands in his pockets when she opened the front door. He walked in as far as the foyer, peeked down the hall, looked around the front rooms and declared it “awesome.”
As Houston turned to leave, Anderson asked him: “You’ll come back, won’t you?”
“Oh, yeah,” Houston said to her over his shoulder before disappearing.
“His legacy is everywhere,” Anderson said of her son. “It just continues on.”
©2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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