Commentary: Friends last forever

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. John McCarthy
  • 8th Maintenance Squadron
The military has always been a tight-knit group of men and women.

We travel the world and establish friendships that develop into lifelong associations. We use words like camaraderie and esprit de corps to describe the friendships and ties we have with each other. I want to describe how one of my experiences 15 years ago has influenced my life and my view on people I call friends throughout my career.

On June 25 of each year, I take a moment and say hello to five friends no longer here: Capts. Christopher Adams and Leland Haun, Master Sgt. Michael George Heiser, Staff Sgt. Kevin Johnson and Airman 1st Class Justin Woods.

These Airmen were all assigned to the 4411th Rescue Squadron on temporary duty from the 71st Rescue Squadron, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., in support of the Southern No-Fly zone in Iraq.

They were lost this day in 1996 in the terrorist bombing at the Khobar towers where a terrorist truck bomb exploded outside the northern perimeter of the U.S. portion of the housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The explosion killed 19 servicemen and wounded hundreds of others, including civilians of several nationalities.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of that tragic event. For those who went through the bombing, we have quietly had our private moments where we talk among ourselves or we look at videos others have made of that night. We even make contact with those still alive.

Last year while surfing Facebook, I received a simple message that read, "Thank you". After responding, the sender said had I not gone looking for him prior to the blast I probably would not have survived.

My friend had stayed at work to troubleshoot an engine malfunction on one of our aircraft and I had walked upstairs to the maintenance production supervisor's room looking for him. I decided to stay in the Pro Super's room instead of returning to my room to talk with some friends. It was approximately 10 minutes later that a security policeman entered the room saying, "Get out! Something is going to happen." I was running down the stairs when the blast occurred. A crew chief in our squadron later told me that when the bomb exploded, I went flying into the stair well wall. I have no recollection of this happening.

However, what I do remember is the next several hours were the most intense of my life- searching and accounting for everyone in the squadron. We always kept coming up one short. Finally after breaking every operational security rule in the book and giving names over an open channel on the hand held radios, we determined it was one of our guys who went home a few weeks prior.

The next 48 hours were spent hearing each other's stories and reliving the events of that night. Those of us who survived the explosion became a very close family of friends, helping each other. The loadmasters were able to get several dorm rooms for us to sleep in because ours were destroyed. Home station was busy taking care of our families and those who lost loved ones.

Following the incident, our squadron was recalled back to Patrick AFB, Fla. We left some folks behind in order to continue the mission as we waited for special operations to come in to relieve us.

Back home, friends came from everywhere to offer condolences and the leadership of the country even came to honor those we lost. Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Sheila Widnall offered kind words.

About a month later, on a Sunday afternoon, I heard a knock on my garage door. It was one of my guys standing there. With tears running down his cheeks, he just wanted to tell me he was glad I was alive. I found out a few days later that this young man had just saved another one of our guys and his friend from drowning in the ocean. It is amazing how climatic events trigger the emotions.

As the years have gone by, I run into folks who were there that night. We share stories and our feelings...we are bound by history to one horrific night in June 1996. I know my time in the Air Force is coming to an end, but the one thing I will miss the most is friends and those I have met and served with and that is what it is all about...FRIENDS!