Best Defense

Thoughts of a military parent provoked by the Arlington funeral of my son’s comrade

For personal reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the families of those who deploy. So I was especially grateful to General Barno for sharing this. By Lt. Gen. David Barno, USA (Ret.) Best Defense guest columnist Last month, I attended the funeral of Captain John "Dave" Hortman, age 30, at Arlington National ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

For personal reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the families of those who deploy. So I was especially grateful to General Barno for sharing this.

By Lt. Gen. David Barno, USA (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

Last month, I attended the funeral of Captain John "Dave" Hortman, age 30, at Arlington National Cemetery. Dave was an Army aviator, a decorated helicopter pilot with three combat tours in Iraq. He was killed in a training crash at Fort Benning, Georgia on Aug. 8, scarcely 48 hours after the headline-grabbing crash of a CH47 helicopter in Afghanistan that claimed the lives of 30 Americans. Dave’s death and that of his co-pilot, CW3 Steve Redd, garnered few headlines.

Dave and Steve were members of the Army’s most secretive helicopter unit, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), the "Night Stalkers". Both were AH6M "Little Bird" pilots, flying the Army’s smallest and most nimble helicopter. They died flying in a routine training event — a fact that in some ways only adds to the anguish of their deaths at a very young age.

Steve Redd, from Lancaster, CA was an experienced special ops attack helicopter pilot, 19-year Army veteran, and fully mission qualified aviator with thousands of flying hours. He had just remarried the week prior to the crash. The photos accompanying his obituary — of a laughing, youthful 37-year old in Army Dress Blue uniform — were taken at his wedding. He left behind six children and stepchildren, and an amazing history over the past decade that included nine deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I accompanied my son and his fiancé to the funeral. My son was in Afghanistan when his friend Dave died. As a fellow Little Bird platoon leader, he led the memorial service in Afghanistan for Dave with the deployed members of their unit — a very tough experience for him. He had redeployed back to the United States just in time to attend his friend’s funeral at Arlington. His fiancé — herself a former Army scout helicopter pilot, with two combat tours — joined him. Both of them were very close to Dave and his girlfriend.

Waiting around before the funeral’s start with members of Dave’s and my son’s unit provided me a brief glimpse into the parallel universe occupied by so many in our military today — particularly our special operators. Dave’s young fellow special ops pilots were gathered in their formal dress blue uniforms, chests covered with ribbons, with gold-trimmed rank epaulets dating from the Civil War on their shoulders.

Conversations before funerals are always awkward, but this group was on tragically familiar ground. The 160th Regiment has a large, black memorial stone on their closely guarded compound at Fort Campbell. On it are the chiseled names of every one of the 91 aviators lost over the thirty years of this unique unit’s existence — before the impending additions of Dave and Steve.

Whereas chitchat before a civilian funeral might turn to sports or the weather to skirt the somber import of the setting, the informal repartee among this group was a bit different. Chief among the topics of these fit and healthy young men was how remarkably well Dave had prepared his last will and testament to cushion the blow of his death for family and friends.

Each of these young men in blues were now going to take time to refine their own already up-to-date wills to better prepare in infinite detail for the unthinkable. Hand-written farewell letters to family, sequences of songs at the funeral, and how — exactly — the family was to be notified, with whom present and in support — all topics not common conversations among young men and women attending funerals in Boise or Boston. Mixed in were thoughts of future assignments, next deployments, decisions on getting married or getting out of the Army, combined with updates on friends and classmates, former unit members and mutual acquaintances. This was a military crowd, and the year was 2011, and the last ten years of life for this group meant just one big thing: war and training, training and war.

And of course, talk about Dave Hortman. Dave was a 2004 West Point grad, and a number of his friends and classmates — those not deployed — were there to see him off. Dave’s mother and stepfather were present and surprisingly composed, along with his sister. A sizable contingent from his hometown of Inman, SC, were there; Dave was the president of his Byrne High School student body, class of 1999. And Dave’s long-standing girlfriend was there, herself an Army officer just back from Afghanistan, who had only two days together with Dave before he headed off for his final mission.

As our group of about 70 followed the silver hearse in our cars, conversations fell off. About a quarter mile from the gravesite, we left our vehicles behind and proceeded forward on foot. A brief, solemn ceremony marked the transfer of Dave’s flag-draped casket from the hearse to a horse-drawn artillery caisson, a nod to the past. Salutes were rendered by the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry, the "Old Guard," accompanied by subdued martial music. A team of perfectly groomed horses capped by riders clad in formal Army blues led our procession forward, followed by a somber Army marching band and a platoon of Old Guard infantrymen with bayonet-tipped rifles sparkling in the sunlight.

The troops’ measured steps echoed off the blacktop road, and many in our mixed crowd of dark suits and ties, dress blues and berets, and cadet white over gray, fell unconsciously into step. As our small group moved closer to the grave site, I noticed a small uniformed figure wearing four-stars unexpectedly materialize in our midst. General Marty Dempsey, 37th Army Chief of Staff and his wife Deanie, had quietly joined our sad procession, silently melding in with fellow mourners.

At the grave site, more salutes were rendered. The Old Guard teams split up, expertly placing the casket over the open grave, while the mounted caisson team quietly receded. A squad of infantry stood to one side, ready to fire the traditional three volleys of seven in final salute. A bugler, also bedecked in dress blues with bright ribbons, stood under nearby trees, nearly out of sight. An unseasonably cool breeze rustled the leaves.

As the family took their seats opposite the casket carrying the final remains of Dave Hortman, the crowd closed in, stepping around the sticky mud from recent rains. An unrelenting parade of airliners descending for landing at nearby Reagan National Airport bored through the sky just overhead. The adjacent highway curving toward the nearby Pentagon provided a muted backdrop of midday traffic. Closer in, the gravestones nearby marked the final resting places of all too many young men and women, killed in action in Iraq or Afghanistan. Dave would lie among those he served and supported, fellow young warriors.

A clergyman from Dave’s hometown gave a prayer, but his words fell on many ears that were already numb. Colonel Matt Moten, who had been Dave’s sponsor and mentor on the West Point faculty while Dave was a cadet, offered a touching eulogy recounting the impressive series of highlights marking Dave’s short life. The downcast mourners lifted their heads a bit, hearing again about the love Dave engendered in his fellow cadets, fellow pilots, fellow human beings.

Unsaid among the prayers or the tribute was the inevitable crushing sense that this remarkably promising young man, and the unique book that was his life, had now been forever destroyed with no new chapters ever to be written. No marriage. No kids. No grandchildren. No more choices or new possibilities. No more shared love, shared dreams, shared sunsets.

The firing party volleyed off their 21 shots in three sets with perfect precision. The bugler beautifully drew out the last notes of "Taps." The soldiers at graveside precisely folded Dave’s last flag and presented it to Dave’s company commander, a burly major with a chest covered in combat ribbons. He knelt to present it to Dave’s mom with words heard in gentle, daily repetition at Arlington: "On behalf of a grateful nation…" The crowd began to break up.

As our small groups quietly began the short walk back to our cars, many paused to speak to Dave’s mom. My son introduced himself, and shared a few quiet words. He had gotten to know Dave when they were both together in "Green Platoon," the six-month long, painfully intensive training program required before Night Stalkers can begin operational flying. My future daughter-in-law drifted toward Dave’s grief-stricken girlfriend. They embraced and shared quiet words, smiles, tears. My son joined them.

And my thoughts, unspoken, forged silently, caught in shared glances between every military parent present: "And there, but for the grace of God…" Sweating out that next night overwater training flight, that next live fire exercise, the next combat deployment.

Holding our breaths, hanging on for a very, very long war.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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