At an event in Havelock this past week I met Chris, like me a retired Marine, who was an avionicsman working on the A-6 Intruder in the '80s and '90s at MCAS Cherry Point. For those who may not be informed, avionics is a blend word like brunch or labradoodle meaning aviation electronics. So Chris worked on the electronics systems installed in the Intruder, electronic systems that were extensive, complex, and ahead of their time on this iconic bomber/attack aircraft, once a vital part of the United States’ naval aviation (both Navy and Marines) inventory.
Typical of Marines (both active duty and former), it didn’t take but a moment after introducing ourselves to form an instant brotherly bond of shared experiences. This instant bond is one of the many joys of being a Marine that, all-in-all, transcend the sorrows of being a Marine of which there are many, one of which Chris would ultimately share with me.
I have two real, blood kin brothers (and several brothers-in-law) with whom I’m blessed to be close. But I have thousands … maybe tens of thousands…of Marine Corps brothers who, like me, became better men for having been drawn through the wringer of Marine Corps disciplined training, tough drill instructors’ expectations, and hard knocks experiences, experiences my non-Marine real blood kin and in-law brothers — as much as I love them and as close as I am to them — can never share. The saying, “We didn’t share a father or a mother, but you’re still my brother,” rings true with Marines.
So my brother Chris sat down next to me in the front row and as brother Marines are prone to do, he opened up about his life and career as a Marine. “I came to the front row not because I like the front row,” he said. “I don’t. It’s because,” as he put it, “I can’t hear a damn thing anymore."
His hearing impaired by the best years of his life working around shrieking jet engines and ram air turbines, and huffers, ground power units, jennies, and tugs, and any number of other roaring, auditory killing, aviation ground support equipment necessary for him to accomplish his mission. Chris’s hearing is just one of the many sacrifices made on America’s altar on behalf of service in the Marines by many devotees, not just by Chris.
But Chris’s brotherly tale of sacrifice was not told to engender pity or empathy. No. It was told like most brotherly stories — matter of factly — as a mere anecdote of commitment to one’s country and most importantly of loyalty to and appreciation for one’s Marines. His hearing loss was a necessary evil, small price to be paid for one’s devoted service, cost that came with the turf.
And anyway, despite the penalty Chris paid for his service in the Marines, he was actually very lucky. He was here. You see, the brochure for the program Chris and I were attending together honored Marines and sailors who had been killed while flying the Intruder and the Grumman TC-4C Academe, the Intruder training aircraft. The names of nine Marines killed in the crash of an Academe assigned to Marine Attack Squadron (VMA)-202 in 1975 at MCAS Cherry Point were listed prominently in the brochure. Chris asked me if I knew of that specific event.
I entered active duty in the Marine Corps late in 1975 just slightly more than a month after that tragic crash at Cherry Point. When the Academe crashed, I had not yet crossed the line of departure to my Marine Corps career. While some of the toughness — and joys — of serving in the Marines had become a part of my reality by then (through officer candidate school), suffering the sorrows of being a Marine had not. I was unaware of the nine Marine Corps brothers killed in that crash: two pilots, two enlisted aircrewmen, four students, and one instructor.
Chris on the other hand, he went on to tell me, knew intimately of the crash. He was a young Marine in VMA-202 making a little extra money every month in flight pay by serving as an aircrewman aboard the Academe, duties in addition to his responsibilities as an avionicsman. He was scheduled to be one of the two enlisted aircrewmen on that fateful flight.
The morning of the crash, Chris was ordered by his boss, Staff Sgt. Cooper, to remain on the ground for other duties. Cooper took the flight instead, never to return.
Like Chris and most Marines, I would go on to know plenty of luck, fate, and sorrow to go along with the joy I found in serving and sharing the brotherhood of Marines. Most Marines, I think, can relate to Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) who wrote, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
Joy especially in service shared and, sometimes, endured and suffered with brothers.