Memorial Day weekend always marks the beginning of summer and typically means time outside, under the sun, and perhaps on the water. This year, I aim to do all three… but after my adventures of the past year, I’ll view the weekend and its Monday holiday in a different way.
There are more than 100,000 men and women who will spend this holiday weekend on the water – but they won’t be on speedboats or water-skis. They’ll be among the 45% of our United States Navy currently deployed around the world. Thousands of them – many of whom I’ve met in the past 15 months – will spend the weekend launching or piloting jets and helicopters from the expansive 4.5 acre flight decks of our Navy’s massive 100,000-ton, 5,500-person aircraft carriers.
Before I wrote Fly Navy (St. Martin’s Press, 2011), I didn’t know the men and women who are naval aviation. I just knew about the classic film, Top Gun, and its hot-shot stars. Until I landed on the deck of a carrier myself, I didn’t understand the dedication and diversity of the people who pilot, maintain and support the great enterprise of naval aviation.
In particular, two things surprised me. First, I didn’t realize how the navy shapes the people who join – many of whom enlist straight from high school and come from less-than-perfect backgrounds. Many were traveling roads that led nowhere good. One twenty-year-old airman told me she cried when she completed basic training because it was the first time she’d ever accomplished anything truly significant. Now, she can scarcely relate to her friends at home who are pursuing dead-end jobs. She travels the world with responsibility for a $50 million aircraft. She has a sense of duty to her squadron mates. She has a new family and a new purpose. Like it has so many times during the past century, the Navy has shaped a new sailor into a true citizen.
Second, the community and family network that supports the men and women who deploy overseas overwhelmed me. I have never experienced a group of people – often total strangers – who will go to such lengths to help one another, especially when heads-of-households are thousands of miles away. In Norfolk, Virginia, a Navy wife’s husband had deployed to the Persian Gulf for six months. During that time, she needed medical treatment in North Carolina. A wife from another squadron – who she’d never met – volunteered to drive her six hours to treatment and six hours back. You don’t always find that type of support in our civilian world.
Some parts of naval aviation bring pain, however. And on Memorial Day, we remember those pilots and airmen who didn’t come back. Some were lost over the Pacific in World War II, others were shot down over Vietnam or Korea. And some – like twenty-eight-year-old helicopter pilot LT Allison Oubre – were lost close to home, on training exercises where something terrible went wrong. A group of Allison’s friends will gather for a wreath-laying ceremony this weekend in Washington, DC, and remember Allison’s service. Like everyone who volunteers for the navy, she knew the risks, but made the sacrifice for her country and her shipmates. Putting others before self; that virtue lies at naval aviation’s heart, and I’m especially mindful of that on this Memorial Day.