March 31, 2005. I remember I was laughing at something my husband said as I picked up the phone around 9:30 that night, so the laughter rang through in my greeting. My revelry quickly faded when I heard the voice of our commander. Always gruff (The guys often imitated him —respectfully —in the voice of Billy Bob Thornton from the movie Sling Blade— “mmm hmmm”), it wasn’t unusual for him to sound the way he did, but it was unusual for him to call directly, and there was something else I heard in the brief request to speak to my husband. Rick spent under a minute with mostly, “Yes sir,” responses before he hung up the phone and said he had to go. It was around 9:30pm, but this again wasn’t unusual.
We were well accustomed to the “leave at the drop of a hat,” reality in which we lived, as part of the 7th SOS. So Rick grabbed his “go bag” — a bag he always kept near and at the ready with three days worth of underwear and toiletries, and with a brief kiss, he left. I didn’t know whether he’d be back tomorrow, next month, or next year. This was the 3rd year as part of the 7th SOS family, and we were mentally ready for anything (or so we thought), because we had been through so much. We once received one of these calls during my son’s 4th birthday breakfast. On that day Dad left quickly, and he didn’t return for weeks, and then months. The mission of the 7th, briefly and in my unofficial terming, is to fly for the USAF into unfriendly or denied territories; at times to extract people, at times to deposit aide or materials; at times to drop people who had to go there for whatever reason, wherever “there” might be for the mission. They open airfields, fly into places where other planes cannot, and land where others cannot land. They fly off the radar, out of the public spotlight and silently, without notice or explanation to their spouses of where they’re headed. More often than not, I heard through the spouses’ unofficial network or from other people who spent more time trying to figure out where their husbands were than I did. I played the game by the rules. I’d know, when they were ready to tell me, or when they were able to phone. This, again, could be weeks.
So I took a deep breath, made some coffee, and sat. The kids had long been put to bed. I didn’t call anyone, there was nothing to say. And then Rick came home again hours later, around 3am. “There’s been an incident,” he said, “that’s all I can tell you.” His face was drawn, and he was fighting to maintain control. So then I guessed. The people in this small flying squadron had made it through countless missions, including one or two in Iraq which made the history books, and had come home safely. Most of the flying crews in the squadron were deployed on a mission in Albania. The only reason my husband was home was because he’d just returned from a different assignment stateside. So I guessed. I’m not sure what happened next. I only remember Col D coming to the door with a chaplain. He, too, looked drawn. I offered coffee, because I didn’t know what else to do. I remember Rick told me to wait, because they might need my help later. Then they promptly left and walked down the street to my friends’ house to knock on her door. The knock all of us knew was a possibility, but pushed far out of our accessible realm of chance and replaced with faith and hope. But tonight, our resources failed us.
The days that followed are etched in all of our memories. The squadron came together both in grief and strength to aide those who needed it most. Everyone has a story to tell of loss. Several wives’, fathers’, mothers’, brothers’ and sisters’ stories continue to evolve in perpetuity.
Our squadron lost many brothers on March 31, 2005. They are:
Captain Todd R. Bracy, 34, of Murphysboro, Illinois;
Captain James S. Cronin, 32, of Oak Grove Village, Illinois; Captain Gil C. Williamson, 31, of Dike, Texas;
Captain Surender D. Kothakota, 30, of Fayetteville, North Carolina;
First Lieutenant Ray C. Owens Jr., 32, of Birmingham, Alabama;
Chief Master Sergeant Lawrence B. Gray, 40, of Chester, South Carolina;
Technical Sergeant James R. Henry, 30, of Valparaiso, Florida;
Technical Sergeant Glenn P. Lastes, 39, of Southington, Connecticut (of the 25th Intelligence Operations Squadron);
Staff Sgt. Patrick R. Pentico, 22, of Hanksville, Utah;