13 December 2010

Remembering Gander, for Different Reasons

Yesterday, Dec. 12, 2010, marked the 25th anniversary of the Gander Air Disaster, the U.S. military's single-most deadly peacetime loss of life. Some 248 U.S. soldiers, most returning home from a 6-month peacekeeping rotation on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, were killed when their charter DC-8 crashed Dec. 12, 1985, just after take-off from a refueling stop at Gander International Airport, Newfoundland, Canada.

The troops were from the 101st Airborne Division--the "Screaming Eagles"--currently deployed to Eastern Afghanistan. The Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) is also deployed there, and under the control of the 101st Airborne Division.

Approximately 18 years and 22 days after the Gander Air Disaster, a plane crashed into the Rea Sea, just 3 miles from the back door to my U.S. Army "hootch."

Few of us remembered hearing the explosion as the charter 737 filled with French tourists hit the Red Sea, although we'd hear later that some of our guard towers might have observed the impact, and called it into our Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"). One-hundred forty-eight souls were on board.

As part of the Iowa National Guard's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1/133rd Inf.), my buddies and I were stationed on the Sinai Peninsula in 2003-04, fulfilling the same temporary little multinational peacekeeping mission as had been the 101st Airborne soldiers killed at Gander.

Like them, we were all days or weeks from returning home to our families. The Gander memorial service in which we'd participated shortly before Christmas was still fresh in our minds.

Even without the memorial service, Gander was never very far away from the Sinai. Our outdoor "O'Deuce Theater" had been named to memorialize the soldiers of 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment (3/502nd Inf.), the 101st Airborne unit most affected by the 1985 crash. When we watched whatever movies or U.S.O. shows that rotated through our peaceful patch in the desert, we looked out over the same Red Sea we now looked to now, standing in our boxer shorts and sandals. Instead of the usual maritime traffic--dive boats and party craft servicing the resort customers of Sharm el-Sheik--we saw our white U.S. UH-1 Huey's circling over the crash site, looking for survivors.

There were no survivors--only debris.

Debris that washed up on the shores of Herb's Beach, a stretch of recreational sand maintained full-time by U.S. soldiers. Some of our infantry guys got combat patches to play lifeguard for six months, but that's another story.

There was a patio built off the back of our sleeping trailer, which we Iowans had rechristened "The Bull Pen" when we arrived in the Sinai. Following our battalion commander's directions, we'd painted the "Red Bull" patch of our beloved 34th Infantry Division a couple hundred different places in the desert. Our favorite place was the Bull Pen.

There was no prohibition against drinking alcohol on our mission, so we'd sit outside at night, drinking beer and watching U.S. football on Armed Forces Television, with the moon-drenched Red Sea as our backdrop.

After the Red Sea crash, we'd hang out in the Bull Pen during daylight hours, one eye on CNN International, the other on the horizon. More often than not, the pictures didn't add up. For days, they'd show the same video over and over, talking about rescue and recovery efforts in the Red Sea. All we had to do was refocus our eyes to the distance, to see that wasn't true. The show had long since gone home. Nothing more to see here.

Herb's Beach closed for the season, due to the biological hazards presented by human remains. It was too cool to swim anyway, and had our minds elsewhere: on a warm homecoming in an even colder Iowa winter.

We were in the middle of planning our own return home. Yes, Gander had happened around the holidays. Yes, it was on a charter aircraft. Yes, we'd just memorialized one air crash, and witnessed another. Our replacements were beginning to show up, and we were mentally checking out. We were easily distracted, and probably spooked. If the U.S. Army would've issued rabbit's feet and lucky horseshoes, we would've taken them gladly.

A couple of months later, I'm back at home, and transferred back to my old communications unit. They're just back from Iraq, and going through some touchy-feely group counseling sessions. We're all in civilian clothes, and broken out into small groups by pay-grade. As we sit in a circle, we all go around and tell stories about our worst days, while social workers and psychologists listen and hold our hands if we go to the restroom.

I've got nothing to say, I tell them, because I wasn't with you guys. I was on a peacekeeping mission. Probably the worst thing that happened on my deployment was watching what happens when a hundred and fifty people drop off the radar.

That's when I lost it. Lost my voice. Choked up. The flush of sudden emotion surprised me--Whoa! Where the h--- did that come from?! It continues to surprise me to this day.

I deployed to a low-stress job in a low-stress environment. People weren't trying to kill me and my buddies. I wasn't directly involved in the Red Sea recovery effort. I didn't observe any of the debris. I'm a pretty straight-forward, level-headed, tightened-down kind of guy. All that, and I still came back with a few tricky memories.

That's why I remember Gander.

That's why I don't take any military trip for granted, whether in peace or war.

And that's why I worry about my Red Bull buddies, who are currently in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne: No matter where they are, and no matter what they do.

Until they come home.

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