"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

This Time of Year: by David Westfall

David Westfall

This comes to us today from David Westfall, a regular contributor here at Memoirs.

His articles, while describing his time as a Navy helicopter crewman so well, always seem to touch our hearts, too ... CJ

This Time of Year

by David Westfall

I hate this time of year. My anxiety goes up and my heart aches. I'm sure many of you can understand. Although at times it seems like it just happened, it's been almost 18 years.

For those of you that don't know me, to make it simple, I was a helicopter crewman in the Navy. I operated all of the sensors and was a door gunner and rescue swimmer.

My "foxhole" wasn't in the dirt or sand, it was the helicopter. That's where I spent thousands of hours of my life. For 50% of that time, it was just three of us: me, the pilot and the co-pilot. The other 50% found my junior crewman in there with us, learning from the master.

Much of our time in the air was spent doing routine patrols in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean and Gulf. Some of it was spent in fun places like Somalia, Panama and other hostile parts of the world.

Because of the recent death of a very close family member, my nerves are already on edge and my heart raw. I normally don't get into this funk until early March. I'm guessing most of the people that read this lost someone in the military -- either a family member or a very close friend -- so I know you all understand what I'm talking about.

My first helicopter, the SH-2F SeaSprite, was an old airframe. They didn't call it the Kaman Coffin for nothing. Over the years, a lot of good men I knew went down in it. Some survived without a scratch, some are crippled for life, and some we never got back. The sea is a cold heartless bitch sometimes.

You can imagine how close you become with the other men when you are trapped together in that flying can. There often wasn't much to do but talk. We talked about our lives, our dreams, our families. We knew each other about as well as any men could know each other.

I was assigned to a detachment that was getting ready to deploy to the Gulf. We had been together for almost a year training and making short cruises.

A couple of months before our deployment date, they shuffled some of the crewmen around. I was assigned to a new detachment that was deploying at the same time as my original one. We were going to be in the same battle group. Everyone was pumped up.

Two birds from the same squadron deploying together just doubles the fun. My guys from my old detachment were some of the best. Kelly, my old junior crewman, took over as senior crewman and was assigned a new junior crewman. The pilots remained the same on the old detachment.

Over a month went by and we were now in the Indian Ocean. We were heading to the Gulf. The birds were fitted with some new avionics and M-60s in anticipation of getting into the 1st Gulf War. We were all pumped up. Loaded and locked, ready to rock.

Right before we entered the straights to get into the Gulf, my ship was rerouted to Somalia. We were out flying a double pump, 6 hours, when the ship made the turn south. Our fellow squadron members with their bird and ship headed into the straights on their way to the Gulf. Both birds were up flying at the same time and we chatted on the radio for awhile until we were out of range of each other.

Our helo landed on our ship about 3 AM, and being exhausted, I hit the rack. I slept in late, until 6:30 AM, and then got up for chow. I swung by the hanger before eating. One of the pilots was up there and, for some reason, he had a real bad attitude. I asked him "what was up his ass", and he glared at me. That's when he told me our other detachment's bird had gone down in the Straights, flying a security patrol in front of the battlegroup. I thought he was joking. Then I saw one of the other pilots in the corner crying. I couldn't breathe.

The Officer In Charge, Lyle, was in the bird that went down. He had been my OIC. He was 36 years old and had just gotten married for the first time in his life, right before we deployed. He had also just bought a sweet new Mitsubishi GT.

Jim, the other pilot, was a true child prodigy, who's short but extraordinary life, had led him into many adventures and, finally, to be a Navy Pilot.

Then there was Kelly, my old junior crewman. He was like a little brother to me. He was short, not physically short, but short in that he didn't have much time left on his enlistment. He actually extended his enlistment to make this cruise. He was saving money so he could attend college in his home state of Texas in the fall.

These were guys I had spent countless hours with, both in the helo and out. We had trained together, drank together and opened our souls to each other. These were my brothers. And now, now they were gone.

The rescue ships and aircraft found some seat cushions, a helmet, and a few other bits of debris. It was many months before the salvage crews could bring up the helo from the bottom of the ocean. One body was found inside.

During the months that followed the crash, we did our mission in Somalia and the Gulf. Back in Hawaii, the squadron held memorial services for those we lost. Those of us still in the Gulf region were given a short 5 minute prayer with the Chaplain on our ship as a way to say goodbye. Then it was back to the mission.

Although more than a few years have passed, I still think of them often. I see their faces. I picture the cars they drove, what their wives or girlfriends looked like, even the designs on their flight helmets. I remember what they wanted to do with their lives. I know what kind of soda and beer they drank.

Yes, the pain has faded some, but it will always be there. For the rest of my life I will remember and honor these 3 great guys that I shared so much with. Maybe at some point, my heart won't feel like it is going to explode when this time of year comes around. I know my loss pales compared to some of yours, but it hurts badly just the same.

Fair winds and following seas, my friends.

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale


  1. Thank for opening your heart to us. I am sure it feels good to express your feelings to the world. I know you will never be able to forget what you went through, but I appreciate everything you have done for this country. Enjoy your life. Live to the fullest.

  2. I can't top the emotion of what you have stated above - thanks for sharing. I did flash to my favorite time of year in Vietnam. That had to be the monsoon season, at least for us Saigon warriors that didn't have to spend lots of time in those rains. I was working at MACV in an intelligence operation. So when I had any time away from my assignment, I would book it to our jungle barracks so I could sack out listening to the rain on the metal roof and feel the cool winds blowing through the screens. That was a little piece of heaven in an often hell hole.


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