The Leaders Playbook: Memorial Day Memories

This time of year is always a solemn one for those of us who have had the honor and privilege of serving alongside those incredible Americans that have made the ultimate sacrifice. This year I thought I’d write about some of these people and the impact they had on me. I’ve kept it short. May we never forget them. I know I won’t.

Capt Pete Jones, F-16 Pilot. I was a young kid when Pete died. Pete was a legendary F-16 fighter pilot and one of the first. He was on the RAF Bombing Competition team with my Dad and went on to be in the first group of F-16 Fighter Weapons School classes. He was an instructor there when he died. He was one of the first to die from G-Induced Loss of Consciousness. I remember is that he smiled all the time and clearly loved life.

LT Mark Eyre, USN. Mark was a classmate of mine in college and a wonderful human being. He was in a Navy ASW airplane when it crashed in the Middle East. He was the first of our class to pass away and his loss made us all feel very mortal.

Col (Dr) Randy Falk. Randy was one of the kindest and caring people I’ve ever met. I’ve often mourned his loss and that I could not do more to help him through whatever demons he was fighting.

SEAL Neal Roberts, Operation Anaconda. I never personally met Neal but his death impacted me significantly. I always felt like I should have been there that night. I was deployed, but I was not flying. I wish that I had been.

MSgt John Chapman, CCT, Anaconda. Chappie and I met one time. He died the same night Neal did. I regret to this day that I was not there for him.

SrA Jason Cunningham, PJ, Anaconda. I’d never met Jason but heard all about him after he passed away. I felt like I knew him after spending so much time with his squadron mates. He died doing what he wanted too. “That others may live”.

LtCol Dillion MacFarland, F-16 Fighter Pilot. McFly was a legend when I was a young Fighter pilot. He was always a teacher and we were all shocked when we heard that he’d passed away on a sortie in UT. I remember where Schwack and I were standing.

Capt Eric “Boot” Das, F-15E, The night Boot and Salty died was the worse weather I’ve ever flown in. Total brown out to FL300. I remember this night like it was yesterday there in the CAS stack with them. I’d met Boot briefly after 9/11.

LtCol William “Salty” Watkins, F-15E. Salty was just a super nice guy. I’d spent more time with him during the opening phases of OEF. He was flying with Boot when they died on that terrible night. I remember how proud Salty was to be a Strike Eagle WSO after coming over from the US Navy.

Scott Sather, CCT, Iraq. I remember the day that Scott died. It was a terrible day. I’d never met him but felt like I knew him.

Scott Duffman, PJ, Help crash in AFG. I had briefly met Scott in one of the units I was assigned too. A great PJ.

Capt Derek Argel, STO/CCT, Capt Jeremy Fresques, CCT/STO, CCT Adam Servais, Plane Crash in Iraq. I never knew Derek, Jeremy, or Adam but their legends live on in those who knew them closely.

Major Troy “Trojan” Gilbert, F-16 Pilot. I had known Trojan before he deployed and knew well those that he was supporting when he passed away. It was an honor to get to know his family in the years that followed and to be there when he was finally brought home after so long.

SEAL Michael Koch. I did not know Mike personally but was working the mission the night he and Nate passed away. I will never forget being there when they got back to our FOB and spending the night with the medics that had extricated them both.

SEAL Nathan Hardy, Killed the same night as Mike Koc. I remember this night well. What a terrible deployment for this unit in this location.

SPC Christopher West, TF FALCON, IED. I never knew Chris personally but remember the night he passed away. It was in the middle of the surge and TF Falcon was a big part of the successes we had during that deployment.

SPC Miguel Baez, TF FALCON, IED. I never knew Miguel but just like Chris and John I carry their deaths with me.

SGT John Oslmolski, TF FALCON. I never knew John but he was a highly respected NCO.

SGT Tim Van Orman, TF FALCON. I didn’t know Tim but carry his death along with Miguel and John’s.

SEAL Luis Souffront. I remember the night Luis passed away. I never met him personally but guys said he was a rockstar.

UK Color Sgt Nick Brown, UK SF. We don’t fight alone and I remember the day that Nick passed away. The flight line was lined with two rows of warfighters as the Brits carried Nick’s casket to the waiting C-130 for his final trip home. I will never forget that sight.

MSgt Will Jefferson, CCT. I’d met Will during his spin up to deploy. While I did not know Will that well his death hit the 21 STS hard. I remember the day he passed away.

SSgt Tim Davis, CCT. I have tried to remember meeting Tim. I was told that he was at some classes I taught. Despite not remembering him in person I remember that he passed away with a one-year-old Daughter.

Maj Doug Zembiec, US Marine. I never met Doug in person but we worked in and around the same people for a long time. We have many mutual acquaintances. His death rocked the world of a lot of people and proved that no one is invincible, but boy everyone thought he was – me too. I often remember him, his leadership, and his sacrifices and his view of the world.

LtCol (Ret) Bob “Snapper” Finer, JEDI 21. I knew Snapper well and was there the night he died. I remember every detail of this night and the aftermath of this tragic and heartbreaking loss.

Col (Ret) Jim “Magic” Henderson, JEDI 21. Magic was a friend, warrior, brother and his loss still deeply haunts me. I think of him all the time and stay close with his family. He impacted so many people in so many good ways. He was kind, caring, brave, and hilarious.

LtCol (Ret) Sam “Bear” Adams, JEDI 21. “Bear” was one of the kindest people you could know. I think of him all the time and the family he left behind.

TSgt Dan Zerbe, PJ, Extortion 17. I was there when DZ went on his first deployment as a team lead. He was diligent, caring, thoughtful, and courageous. We were close and it was heartbreaking when he, John and Andy passed away.

TSgt John Brown, PJ, Extortion 17. John was a quiet man, but a great PJ. We’d met several times and I always remember him with a smile on his face.

SSgt Andy Harvell, CCT, Extortion 17. Andy was a machine. He knew one setting – full throttle. Both he and his Brother Sean were CCTs and tragically both are gone. I remember putting Andy through selection, where despite his sometimes over the edge approach, he excelled.

SrA Danny Sanchez, CCT. I briefly met Danny during his spin up. He was ready to go and was killed by a green on blue incident. Tragic.

SrA Mark Forrester, CCT. I didn’t know Mark but feel like I did. After college he enlisted so that he could be in the fight. He felt like as an American it was his duty to go.

SMSgt Chris Johnson. Chris was my 1st Sgt and he died doing something he loved. It was a big loss when he passed away and very difficult to tell his family.

SrA Evan Curbeam. Evan died in a tragic accident in Baltimore harbor. While young, there was no doubt he was going places. He had a wonderful personality and when we told him family we broke their hearts.

Captain Eric Ziegler, F-16 Fighter Pilot. I did not know “Dirk” but understood him and how many really great people loved him. He died from a G-induced loss of consciousness while getting ready to go to the Fighter Weapons School.

Captain James “Mano” Steel, F-16 Pilot, AFG. I did not know Mano but knew many who did know him. Mano died while on approach into Bagram at night in the weather.

Capt. William H. DuBois Jr. I remember the day “Pyro” died and the after effect on that unit. I’d flown out of where he died and it could get incredibly dark out there with no horizon. A tragic loss for the Nation and for the world.

LtCol Moose Fontenot, F-15 Pilot. Moose was such a good man. We had known each other for years when at 19 years he joining the Air National Guard. Moose died in his F-15 after an emergency on his way to deliver the jet to the maintenance shop.

Brad – Brad and I had worked together several times over the years. He loved aviation and life and I was shocked to hear of his passing.

Z – Z was a great guy. He had served a career as a fighter pilot then went on to continue to serve. He died doing what he loved – leading and helping people.

Nick – I don’t remember if Nick and I actually met but it seems like we did, we had so many mutual acquaintances. He died trying to save other people’s lives. His loss was devastating to so many people who loved him.

LtCol Dan “Pigpen” Swayne, F-16 Pilot training AT-208’s. Pigpen was such a good man. 4000 hours in the Viper then still serving teaching others. It broke my heart when he passed away.

Charles Keating, SEAL, OIR. I remember when Chuck Heavy passed away. I’d met him one time. He was so well known with so many incredible friends. He died doing what he loved, taking the fight to the enemy.

Josh Wheeler, USASOC, OIR. Josh was a legend. He died fighting and helping others.

Ryan Owens, SEAL. I remember the night Ryan passed away. I still think about that night a lot and how hard people fought that evening.

Kyle Milliken, SEAL. I didn’t know Millie personally but know many who did. He was loved by so many.

Capt Paul Barbour, T-38/B-52. Paul’s death hit a lot of people very hard – myself included. I remember speaking to him just days before he’d died and how at peace he was. It was clear that he was finally where he believed he was supposed to be. At least “Magic” Henderson was there to greet him in heaven.

CW3 Taylor Galvan, 160th SOAR. I remember the night Taylor died and meeting him in Baghdad. The Navy stood watch over him for hours and hours until the airplane came to take him home for the last time.

CWO Jon Farmer, Green Beret, CPO Shannon Kent, Scott Wirtz, Former SEAL, Ghadir Taher, Linguist, I met Jon, Shannon, Scott, and Ghadir in Syria over Christmas not long before they died. We were all in one big place for Christmas dinner. Their death hit every one very hard.

Col (Ret) Lou “Shooter” Campbell. I met Lou when he was a 1LT and knew him until the day he passed away. He was such a kind man and a hard worker. I regret not being closer to him at the end. My heart breaks for him and what he must have been carrying.

LTC (R) Bill Dean. Bill was one of the best officers and leaders I ever met. Kind, caring, wickedly smart, he retired as a LTC to spend more time with his family that he loved beyond words. He died in the mountains – a place he loved.

Sal. Sal was one of the kindest people you could ever meet. He made you feel like you were the most important person in the world when you spoke with him. He worked hard to be the best at what he did. It breaks my heart to think of those he leaves behind.

LtCol (R) Mike M. Mike took his own life and we may never know why. It breaks my heart that we could not do more for him.

May we never forget what Memorial Day is all about. I will raise a glass to you all this weekend with my sincere and heartfelt thanks for the impact that each of you made on my life and the lives of those that had the honor of knowing and loving you. I will also raise the same glass to your Families who continue bravely on. You’d be very proud of them.

May we as a Nation never forget our Fallen.