I was sitting in an Air Force training room learning a new mission and airplane in which we would be flying low-level missions at night. The words “End of Recording” were flashing in green on the screen in front of me. Thankfully, the lights were still down low because my eyes were filled with tears.
I had just listened to my friend “Mike” and his crew fight to the very end to save their aircraft and themselves before they impacted a mountain on a night, low-level mission a long way from home.
They were all killed instantly, and the words “End of Recording” stared back at me with finality.
My mind flashed back to the last time I had seen Mike. It happened like so many military reunions, in some random trailer in a desert in the Middle East.
I was sitting at a briefing table getting ready for that night’s mission—learning new code words, reviewing escape plans and filling out what seemed to be endless amounts of paperwork. On a side note, war generates a lot of things, but it generates an amazing amount of paperwork.
My crew was getting food, weapons and the requisite white Toyota pickup truck, which we used to get to the airplane. I was sitting alone when suddenly the door opened and in from the heat and the haze stepped Mike. I hadn’t seen him in years, since our initial training together.
The next few minutes were a flurry of handshakes and, “What are you doing out in the middle of nowhere?”
We caught up on family, marriages, kids, friends from training and what our flying assignment plans were for the future. Mike told me he was about to transition to a new mission and aircraft and would be leaving for training soon. The assignment was going to be with the group my Dad started back in Vietnam, so I shared a bunch of stories with him about the “old heads.”
After what seemed far too short of a time, we had to go to work. As we walked out into the heat, we both said, “Fly safe brother” and then got in our trucks and headed to the flight line.
That was the last time I saw Mike.
In that training room, I was sick to my stomach and wishing there was some way to change the end of the video we had just watched. The lights came up, and then it was time to get to work, to learn from the mistakes, so we wouldn’t make the same ones, while at the same time honoring how hard they fought.
One of my instructors said it best: “Never, never, never, give up, ever.”
Mike and his crew didn’t, and I was proud of him.
A few years later, I received an invitation to go to a memorial service where Mike and all the crews in his group that had lost their lives over the past 50 years would be honored. I decided to take my son, and we met up with hundreds of aircrew members, including my Dad, at a base in Florida.
It came time for the official ceremony, and we all rose to attention. The name of every crewmember who had lost their lives was read aloud. They went in order beginning from the Vietnam era and ending with present day. The names were read as a crew each time, and when they began reading Mike and his crew’s names, the tears started rolling.
There was something peaceful though about being all together sharing this.
As I looked around, I recognized Mike’s parents sitting a couple of rows in front of us. When the service concluded, I took my son down so we could say hello and pay our respects to them. I approached his dad, a retired full colonel who was a pilot and an Air Force chaplain as well.
I re-introduced myself. It had been years since we had seen each other. Mike’s dad and mom thanked us for coming, and then I decided to share some funny stories of Mike and his infectious laugh. His mom immediately lit up and started laughing and calling others over to hear about Mike.
Suddenly, there was Mike standing right in front of me in the shape of his daughter who was the same age as my son. His mom said she has the same laugh and smile as Mike, and she was right.
I was reminded yet again that “End of Recording” isn’t really the end of the recording. Both Mike and I share a faith that believes that, and seeing his daughter reminded me of it yet again.
Before we left, I went and looked at the memorial to Mike and all of the crews. On it was inscribed one of my favorite verses, Isaiah 6:8: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’”
I couldn’t think of a more perfect verse to honor all of them.
Memorial Day is a celebration of those that said, “Send Me,” but didn’t get to come home. Remember their families. If you know one of them, make sure they realize how much that person meant to you, and even if they have heard a story a thousand times, tell it to them again.
I have seen firsthand how much it means for them to know how their loved one impacted your life. It’s more evidence to them that “End of Recording” isn’t the end of the story.
God Bless those families we celebrate this weekend, and God Bless America.
Shawn Mattingly is a pilot for UPS and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.