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In my career spanning from 1996 to present, I transitioned from an enlisted aircrew to maintenance officer with deployments to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Oman, Kuwait, Iraq and now Afghanistan. Recently, I found myself experiencing the loss of a fellow airman and friend. On Oct 11, a helicopter crashed with four members from my unit just three days after I arrived in the AOR. I had always known the potential existed for the loss of a fellow airman while deployed. However, after 18 years, I had become blind to the possibility.

When the report came in about the helicopter crash, I immediately knew my friend was on board. A sinking feeling came over me as my mind flashed to a few hours earlier when I told him to “have a safe flight.” After several hours, the official word was released that our unit had two killed in action and two wounded in action. The loss was overwhelming and I do not think anyone slept that night.

The following day a small group from the unit flew to Bagram Air Field to give a final salute to our fallen airmen. The ramp was filled with members of the Bagram forces who did not know our friends, but felt the loss as if they had. In that moment I knew what being a “wingman” truly meant. Our unit formed up on the ramp of the C-5 across from the Operation Resolute Support leadership intermixed with the leadership from our unit. I watched as the commanding general of Operation Resolute Support asked the lieutenant colonel, who lost the two airmen, to move into his spot as he took the position in the second rank. This moment was an example of pure leadership.

As the ceremony began, the two formations facing each other snapped to attention. As the melody of “Amazing Grace” rang through the C-5, I realized these two formations were very alike. Maybe not in rank, but this unwelcomed moment was giving “leadership” a humanistic value. Often leaders become something of an entity and they lose their human side in the eyes of airmen.

My epiphany was made clearer as I tried to stare past a colonel who was trying to stare past me. I could see he was hurting like me. I could see his eyes turning red and the tears welling up as he kept his military bearing while begging, willing and demanding his tears not to escape his eyes. I was doing the same.

The ceremony concluded and each of us had a moment to kneel at the side of our friends’ flag-draped caskets and render our final salute. The leadership formation was first to pay their respects. Many of them left coins on each casket and then left the aircraft via the crew entry stairs.

I was the first in our formation to exit the aircraft. What appeared to be a receiving line made up of generals and colonels met me at the bottom of the stairs. I was unable to restrain the tears after I rendered my last salute and I was not expecting to face my leadership. With tears streaming down my face I prepared myself to give a handshake and salute to the first member of the receiving line, the commanding general of Operation Resolute Support. He extended his hand, and as mine went into his grip, he turned the handshake into a hug. This hug was not expected, rehearsed or insincere. He was a human.

Maj. Theresa Determan is serving as part of the 438 Air Expeditionary Wing/Train Advise Assist Command–Air at Forward Operating Base Oqab, Afghanistan. The views expressed are her own, and do not constitute official U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense comments.

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