The choices we make

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. -- Have you seen the recent British public service announcement video on YouTube about the teenager texting on a busy highway? It's a graphic, poignant crash reenactment. The driver's critically injured and her two passengers are killed, as are others caught up in the accident. The point? Texting while driving is a poor choice, and her recklessness profoundly affected others. This video took me back 17 years. This lesson hammered home -- and my squadron torn apart -- by what started as a routine training flight and choices that were made in a cockpit. 

My wife, Susan, and I were stunned as the newscaster said, "Air Force C-130 crashes in with nine aboard. The story at 11." Our hearts sank, knowing nine friends from our squadron had launched only hours earlier. I drove to my squadron, and then answered the phone at our ops desk as it rang continuously for the next few hours. I spoke to the frantic wives of many of the nine, able only to say, "We don't know anything for sure yet. If he walks in, I'll have him call you immediately." 

On an unremarkable April evening at Pope AFB, NC, Susan and I embarked on one of the saddest journeys of our lives as squadron mates and families coped with the deaths of these friends, through a base memorial service, numerous funerals and caring for grieving spouses and children. 

A week after the accident, when Tom's body was finally recovered from the muddy bottom of the lake he'd crashed into, I grieved alongside his wife, Marianne, and her mother as she received "official notification" of his death. We listened to the sad details of his body's condition and federal death and funeral entitlements. 

Three days later, I accompanied Tom on his last flight, standing quietly on a parking apron alongside the airliner as his coffin made its connection in Washington, returning him to his brokenhearted Maine home. 

On a clear, brisk May afternoon, an Air Force honor guard sergeant handed me a crisply folded flag with a slow salute, and I turned and presented it to Tom's despairing parents. I recited, "On behalf of a grateful nation, this flag is presented to you as a token of appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service." One of our squadron's C-130s flew overhead as the graveside service ended. I cried on Tom's coffin, and then I went home. 

Lastly, assigned as a summary court officer, I collected Tom's belongings there in his Pope apartment, deciding with Marianne what she would keep to remind her of her young husband, and what we would ship to Tom's parents. 

Today, I see daily reports of accidents - often the result of poor choices - that bring agony to other Air Force families just as Tom's death did to his. A high-speed motorcycle accident on a wet road, a suicide, and yet another driving under the influence with fatal results--I know these Airmen likely made spur-of-the-moment choices, without any forethought of how the consequences could impact friends and families. 

The accidental deaths of my friends had a pointed effect on how I've viewed my life choices since. Years later, the crew of Even 91 is with me when I'm driving on a stormy road, making decisions in an airplane or interacting with my family. Tom and his crew still remind me how our choices can affect lives well beyond our own. 

Don't have "one more for the road." Ask for help. Slow down. Pull over to text. Think about what could happen, and weigh your choices.