In this newsletter, John Hamilton discusses the benefits of being part of something bigger than yourself, the memory of his friend Kevin, and the importance of a message of resilience for today's youth.

I have a very vivid memory from 2002 of two of my friends in Afghanistan going out on a combat mission. We were helicopter pilots in the 101st Airborne, and on this particular day, I was not assigned to fly. I was just killing time on my cot.

After briefly going over the scheme of maneuver for the day, they headed for the tent door and one said to the other, “if anything happens, I won’t leave you.” We never leave our buddies on the battlefield. It’s officially called “personnel recovery.” At any given moment we could be called upon to extract our wingman or other friendlies in harm's way, as the primary recovery asset or in support.

But I’d never heard it put so simply, so elegantly. “I won’t leave you.” A precise example of a friend, a fellow Soldier, declaring his intention to live up to the specifically defined Army Warrior Ethos, “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” The declaration was not with flourish or formality. In tone, my buddy might as well have said, “if you want, I’ll go to the store.” You buy, I’ll fly. The passing nature of the remark made it all the more remarkable and memorable.

Honestly, of the two having the conversation, I can’t remember which one said it to the other. But they both agreed on the sentiment. Bruce and Kevin. I’ll never forget it.

I’ve been asked about the difficulties of deployment. My answer is typically the same - I performed as any of a thousand trained to do my job would have during the most interesting moments. As for the rest of the experience, I think it’s easy to feel confident when you’re surrounded literally by hundreds, if not thousands of people who would move heaven and earth to ensure you’re not left behind. Courage is contagious. That’s how it seemed from my proverbial foxholes, a cockpit and tent surrounded by Army pals.

It’s very empowering to be a part of something bigger than one’s self, on a team of like minded people with purpose. You don’t even think about it, you just know you have a mission and are part of something, that people are counting on you. The whole country is counting on you, history is counting on you.

Then, one day, you’re back home.

You always longed to be home, and while you are beyond joyful to be with family and all you know that is good and right again, a realization begins to set in, if you’re lucky, because that means self awareness. If not, you start to feel something you’re not used to, after spending every hour of your life for months surrounded by an Army.

Your most important mission has begun, just being a normal person, pursuing a normal thriving life, but now, in a sense, you are…alone.

You may not really be alone, you may have a family, a husband, a wife, or kids, and they need you more than any person in the military needed you. Maybe they are counting on you to love them, protect them, feed them, raise them. Or you may live by yourself, but you must still lead yourself to a way of life and purpose that honors this time on this earth and pursues happiness on some level. But now, it’s an Army of One. All those who shared your dedication, competence, and willingness to ensure your survival at all costs, they are gone. The once constant camaraderie only a memory. It’s now up to you alone to remind yourself of all the courage that you were once immersed in 24-7.

Eventually, hopefully, you figure it out. You bounce back. You transition into the next phase, doing life, without some grand combat operation with a sense of high adventure, surrounded by all those in green. You eventually find your resiliency, as you relate to a world not wearing a uniform. Or you don’t.

Years later, after he had retired from the service, I once asked Kevin, why do you think so many veterans commit suicide? Without contemplation, Kev instantly responded, “because they’re alone and miss their buddies.” By that time Kevin often found himself alone, but always near a phone, and thus ever ready to retell a story, of which he had many. It was always fun to relive these extraordinary moments. Flying and fighting for your country in the wake of an attack on it. Noble, historic, and heady stuff. The best stories were sublimely ridiculous, the hilarious happenings, like the time our pal Jimmy went to use the latrine in the middle of a sand storm and lost his way back to the tent for hours. That’s right, a bathroom break that took hours. A call from Kevin, no matter the time of day, was always welcome and great fun.

Then, a few years ago, on Veterans Day 2017, we lost Kevin to alcoholism. No more phone calls, laughter, and tall tales, which were mostly true.

Back home, without that battle buddy on their left and right, some veterans successfully transition to the next phase of operations, and some don’t. Some like Kevin, struggle mightily, with fits of victory, one step forward, two steps back. He started college, remarried (a couple of times) got involved in church, but, like the lumbering Cobra gunship he once flew, weighed down with too much fuel and ammo, he dragged his skids in the trees and started drinking a little too much again. His genetic predisposition possibly, like an aircraft struggling to climb on a hot and humid day, taxed the mighty engine of his soul, and it was mighty, and noble, and brave, but was no match for the environmental conditions of so much hard living. The absence of mission and solo nature of his struggle, without his kindred posse of gunpilots, another aerodynamic penalty. We loved Kevin. He knew it, but we lost him anyway to the same crash of forces that conspire against so many these days, what Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have termed “deaths of despair”: suicide, opioid overdoses, and alcohol-related illnesses.

A couple years before Kevin died, I lost a good friend to suicide. We had flown together as young warrant officers in the 90s in Hawai’i. Pat, like Kevin, was the life of the party, an amazing and beloved man. He had become an Air Force pilot. A few months after returning home from a deployment, he took his own life, leaving behind a beautiful family, a wife, and two teenage daughters. Faced with the hardest facts like this, I take comfort in my faith, which allows me to accept there are some things I’ll never understand or make sense of.

Of course, when we lose someone we all ask ourselves if we could have done something to prevent it, our heart literally hurts in our chest, we make sense of what we can. Eventually, we accept that the battle of the mind, no matter how much friends may matter in it, is ultimately up to the individual to win. Then we start to pick up the pieces, remembering again how life is so precious and short, each day is a gift, never knowing which one of them could be the last for someone we love, so we always keep that in mind, and are maybe a little kinder, more thoughtful. Then, the resilient among us reach beyond ourselves, and our pain, to see where we can help. And in doing that, we don’t just wallow in the turbulent air of our collective misery, we begin to find the smooth air of a purpose bigger than ourselves again. A way to give meaning to the suffering we’ve seen, a way to keep Pat and Kevin alive by the telling of how they are not defined by the moments of sadness at the end, but by bravery and laughter and the love they had for all those they held dear. Their memory, the sound of their voice, the spirit of their lives, it lives on. They may have left us, be we will never leave their memory behind. We stay connected, even in their absence.

When we began The 9:57 Project several years ago, we knew we were doing something important, even if we didn’t quite grasp the exact reasons for what seemed to be transformative elements at work in our activities. We found talking about the hardest of things, 9/11, has the potential to showcase the most noble and honorable characteristics of the human experience.  We’re educators and combat veterans, not mental health experts, but we’ve learned sharing stories of battlefield bravery and love have the potential to model for our youth what resilience looks like.

Of course, they need it now more than ever. I recently saw several TED talks on youth resilience. The themes are the same. Feeling connected, having a sense of purpose, knowing strong relationships. Sounds to me a lot like being in the Army. When we come into classrooms and share what we’ve seen and know, from day one, the kids seem to instantly gravitate toward what we have to offer. And while it may seem a bit cheesy, the entire thought for this article came from my own 16 year old daughter, as I stood in the kitchen one night.

Please don’t judge what I’m about to premise - but it’s a fact that many folks loved the movie “Top Gun” in the 80s. The incredible flying scenes and bravado of military aviation are on full display in this cultural touchstone of the decade. I think it’s safe to say, the movie inspired many to pursue flying for the armed forces. Kevin’s most often quoted movie was “Stripes,” followed by “A Few Good Men,” but Top Gun got a mention or two here and there. Kevin had been an F-15 crew chief in the Air Force and was entirely familiar with the fighter pilot culture. Personally, I think the outsized nature of Kevin’s personality, his love of aerial gunnery and instrument flying, his own personal courage on the battlefield (he once attempted to land his helicopter, dismount, and, armed only with his pistol, attempted to personally organize a group of heavily armed Iraqi Soldiers who had just surrendered) surpass fictitious Hollywood portrayals — but there is one thing Tinsel Town gets right.

I have a theory, that part of the success of the original and the new Top Gun has nothing to do with the overt imagery; there is an overriding, universal, and amazing theme right under all the glamor, sex appeal, and fast planes. And my daughter was the one who pointed me in that direction. She had seen the new Top Gun, before I did, and would tease me a bit that she knew the story, but did not spoil it. My daughter doesn’t give too much thought to the stories I tell other high school kids (at least I don’t think so). I’m her Dad, I just try not to embarrass her. But Top Gun 2 got her talking to me about something very familiar. “Dad, there’s a guy in the new Top Gun. They call him Hangman. You know why?” I guessed right, “because he always leaves his wingman hanging?”

“That’s right,” replied my daughter.

Then, much to my surprise, my daughter expressed interest in a story I told her about never leaving your wingman. An actual flying story, that really happened.

Then, my daughter demonstrated she is in fact my daughter. “Dad, can we watch the original Top Gun tonight?”

And we did, and I recalled how when I was 15, I loved the original movie, but by the end of it, I was still sad that Goose was dead. Of course, we all know Maverick rallied over the loss of his best friend and got back into the air. Sometimes fiction, even Hollywood razzle dazzle fiction, highlights the ultimate useful truths better than messy, complicated real life.

I realized that night that the original Top Gun is actually a classic resilience tale. The protagonist claws his way out of the depths of despair back to purpose. I was also stunned to realize, that verbatim, in the most serious of speeches one could give, I said, in eulogizing my friend I lost to suicide, “you never leave your wingman.” I didn’t quote Top Gun, which features the exact same line. No, somehow this cultural phenomenon had tapped into an ultimate truth, that we all need a wingman, someone who gives a damn about us. In this fracturing society, our youth need to see what that connection looks like in real life and up close, not just on a big screen.

Kev, we’ll never leave behind the memory of who you are and everything you did.

John Hamilton

Cover image:  Chief Warrant Officer 3 Kevin Keaton (left), the Master Gunner of the Eagle Attack Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division, briefs Major General Richard Cody on the Apache Aerial Gunnery range that the Battalion established in its deployment to Afghanistan in the months after 9/11