Prose & Photography: James Woodard
We have all seen the ending of Top Gun. Maverick holding Goose's dogtags in his hand, standing at the edge of an aircraft carrier at sea. At that moment, Maverick seems to get closure for the death of his friend, and throws the tags into the sea. To anyone who has dealt with any significant loss, finding closure can sometimes be a difficult thing. Sometimes you can experience closure at the most unexpected times, and sometimes you don't even realize you haven't had that defining closure moment. For me, personally, last year at Thunder Over Michigan was one of those times.
Oct 3, 2009 Combat Outpost Keating, Afghanistan
Early on this fateful morning, the American soldiers of 3-61 came under attack, and they realized quickly that this was not going to be the normal fight they had gotten used to. The enemy was all around them and had the higher ground. At one point during the battle, the enemy had even made it “inside the wire." After an intense fight that included numerous rounds of air-support, the men of 3-61 were finally able to take control of Keating again. But at a heavy cost. Eight American soldiers were lost that day. The families of all of the Keating soldiers lives changed that day. The families of the fallen changed that day. My life changed that day.
For as long as I could remember, my younger brother Michael had wanted to be in the military. He had a passion for it, whether it be those huge warbird calendars on his walls, model jets that he built, or watching Gunny on the History Channel, he was always indulged in anything military, past and present. During his high school years, he worked at Naval Air Station Wildwood, an Aviation museum in Cape May, NJ. I can track back my personal love of aviation to him working there; it was where I was first introduced to the glory of aviation. Naturally, he followed his passion and joined the Army out of high school, even after being discouraged by some. He knew long ago that he was going to be a soldier and nothing was going to stop that. After his first tour of duty in Iraq, he expressed to me his wanting to go to warrant officer school and fly helicopters for the Army. He wanted to finish his first round as a Cav Scout and then move onto that.
I remember the call I received from him around Labor Day 2009, before he shipped out for his second deployment. He knew where they were going was a bad area. He was heading to COP Keating. That was the last time I heard his voice. He was one of the eight American Heroes this country lost on Oct 3, 2009 at COP Keating, Afghanistan.
That was almost ten years ago. In that time, I can't count how many turns I have had in my life. There is no doubt that he pulled some strings somehow that allowed me to start talking to one of his high school crushes (I have the letters from him while at boot camp to prove it) to which I am now married to with 3 lovely daughters. It was also he that introduced me to warbirds; something that has became an absolute passion of mine. Looking back at it now, I am not sure that I ever had that moment of closure in dealing with his passing. That was until Thunder Over Michigan, 2018.
Attending a large airshow like Thunder Over Michigan is nothing new to me, I just never thought I would attend a show that would be as personal and emotional as this one would become. After standing by the taxiway all day friday shooting arrivals, we were exhausted and ready for rest. However, on the way out, we saw the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation with their Hueys and Cobras that they give thrilling rides with.
They were set up in a large grass field and we obviously had to stop to try to get some nice shots of that unique scene. With about as perfect a background as you can get, the Cobra was calling my name. I layed down on the grass behind the yellow rope and started shooting. After a couple minutes, one of the pilots, who looked like Sam Elliot in a flight suit, called us over to the Cobra and allowed us to get more intimate shots of it and even letting us inside the gunner's seat. It was a great experience, after which we thanked him and went back to the yellow rope to continue watching them take passengers for rides
As I stood there, I remembered my brother wanting to fly helicopters for the Army and in front of me were a collection of past Army helicopter pilots and some Army helicopters. I always have a set of my brothers dog tags with me and today was no different. I had thought for a while now that it might be cool to get the tags flown in a old warbird, like a Mustang or something. But this was better, this was perfect.
After a couple minutes of building up enough courage to ask for this request, I walked up to one of the crew. As we extended hands to introduce ourselves, I placed the dog tags in his hand and explained the situation. I said, "These are my brothers dog tags, he wanted to fly helos in the army, but was [killed in action] in Afghanistan before he got the chance, is there any way you could fly the tags on the next flight?" and he was more than willing to help. He walked the tags to the Huey and gave them to the pilot, who happened to be Sam Elliot in a flight suit, call sign Mudd.
As the Huey took flight, I was happy that, in a way, Michael was living out one of his dreams. The crew member who walked the tags out to the Huey then approached me and instructed me to walk over to the Huey when they landed to get pictures of the tags hanging in the front. I nervously stood there waiting to hear that distinct whoop whoop whoop sound of the the Huey returning.
Minutes later, I heard the sound and made my way to the landing zone. As I approached, I could see the tags hanging there, right in front of the pilot. The next thing that happened I was not prepared for. As Mudd removed the tags from their hanging location, he held them out in front of him, and gave a salute. I was speechless, the only thing I could do was shake hands and nod as a way to say thank you. It wasn't until walking back to the rope and looked at the photo of the salute in the back of my camera that I lost it.
I could no longer contain my emotion. I went to one knee, grasped the dog tags and wept. I shed tears for the brother I grew up with, and my mother who I know would have appreciated this gesture from complete strangers to honor her baby boy that way. I felt at that moment, both of them were shedding tears alongside me.
Despite being emotionally drained, I was finally able to compose myself enough to find the crew and express my deepest gratitude. Their actions deeply moved me in a way that totally caught me off guard. Throughout the weekend, I had the honor of getting to know some of the crew, even sharing dinner with them after the airshow. It was at this dinner that Mudd and I shared a deep conversation. I know that what I had been through the previous day was special, but in talking to Mudd, I realized why; I had an unexpected moment of closure. There is the old saying that a photo is worth a thousand words...well, sometimes a photo can be worth much more. I will always remember the weekend of the 2018 Thunder Over Michigan show, not for the aircraft, not for the great photographic opportunities, not for meeting new friends. I will always remember it for one thing.