I served in the US Air Force for 30+ years. I am a command pilot with 3500+ hours, and held several command and other leadership positions.
Heroes and Friends – Final Version
Gregory M. Cain, Colonel, USAF (Retired)
Remarks as Given on 28 May 2018 – Memorial Day Celebration, Latah County Fairgrounds, Moscow, Idaho, USA
Good morning everyone. Thank you all for being here today. And thank you, George, for the introduction. Thanks also to you and the rest of the VFW and American Legion post members for the invitation to speak here today. Thanks for what you do year round to honor and remember our veterans and fallen heroes, too. I know I accepted the invitation readily at the time it was offered, but I have to say that as the day drew nearer my trepidation grew in inverse proportion. But perhaps not for the reasons you might think. You see, back when they used to have them still, I was known to cry when they announced a Blue Light Special at K-Mart. It’s who I am, I guess, but not everyone understands when I get watery eyes over things and memories and special occasions. I think it’s probably a gift given to me by my dad, Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Larry Cain, and my Mom, Ramona Cain. And so it goes.
Anyway, thanks again for asking me to be here and allowing me to spend a few moments with you on this very solemn, somber and special occasion.
I want to start off by just acknowledging any and all of you who might have heroes and friends, loved ones lost in the line of duty to this our great country. Time passes, I know, but memories of these heroes and friends, and “what ifs” and sorrows will linger for a lifetime. They each might morph and manifest differently as days and months and years pass, but they never leave. The grief will be with us always.
And that is understandable, actually, because as we all know, there is one universal and immutable truth when you talk about military members dying while in service to our country—they all moved on to the next life at an age that was far too young. It’s difficult not to think things like, “if she had only done something else, or if he hadn’t deployed on back to back tours…she or he might still be with us today.” This is all very true, and losing someone so young is tragic in the extreme, so thoughts like these are normal, and part of the grieving process. But it is equally true and important to remember that this is part and parcel of the fabric of our great Republic. That is, we live in a society with values so great and freedoms so unconstrained, there are always those among us who are willing to give their all to defend them. And I, for one, hope that it remains so throughout my lifetime, and my children’s lifetime, and in perpetuity as long as the colors continue to fly free and unfettered over this great land.
This day, this last Monday of May, then, is set aside to celebrate these types of heroes and friends, those nearly 645,000 men and women who breathed their last while protecting the freedoms we all cherish. 116,000 died in World War I alone. More than half our war dead—a staggering 400,000+—died in World War II. We lost more than 50,000 service members in Korea, and another 58,000 more in Vietnam. To date, in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly 7000 young men and women have been killed in combat action. And we still have troops on the ground over there today, as you all know. These are staggering numbers, really, and it’s important to remember that those numbers don’t even include service members killed in the line of duty while in training, or otherwise performing their day-to-day jobs for the greater good of our country. For all those reasons, it seems a small price to pay to take a few moments for one day a year to remember and appreciate our fallen heroes and friends. To my way of thinking, it is the very least we owe them--for we not only have this Memorial Day because of them, we have all of our everything because of them.
Today I’d like to take a few moments to talk to you about some of my heroes and friends who died in service to the Republic. They and countless others like them are not among the 645,000 we count as having fallen in combat, though they died in service to their country, to be sure. And today is as much for them as it is for anyone else.
There is a picture I have of my wife Julie, my son Benjamin and me sitting on the parade stand along Marine Corps Drive which runs through the heart of the island of Guam for nearly all of its 30 mile length. They look stylish with their sunglasses on and wearing their island attire. I am in uniform, squinting and sort of smiling. The picture was taken just a few minutes before 1000 hours, when RAIDR 21, a B-52 stationed at Andersen AFB as part of the Pacific Theater’s Continuous Bomber Presence mission, was to perform a flyby at 1000 feet directly overhead our position. The date was 21 July 2008, 64 years to the day after the 3rd Marine Division assaulted the beaches of Guam to take the island back from the Japanese. Ask anyone who lives there, or who has lived there, and they will tell you that Guam’s Liberation Day is a bigger patriotic holiday by far than any other occasion on the island. It’s a big, big deal. When the specified time came and went, and RAIDR 21 did not show, by virtue of my position as number two in command of the base, I began to receive phone calls and radio calls from our command post. Radar contact has been lost with RAIDR 21. The Coast Guard is launching a search and rescue ship from Naval Station Guam on the south of the island. F-15 Strike Eagles overhead have spotted a churning, foaming bubble disturbance rising from the ocean in the Mariana Trench some 30 miles northwest of the island. It looks strikingly similar to the shape of a B-52 bomber. And so on and so on. Needless to say, none of us were able to remain and watch the Liberation Day parade that morning.
In the Air Force, as in all of our services, we train every day like we intend to fight. We make the most of all opportunities when spending taxpayer money on JP-8 jet fuel to get realistic training accomplished. On 21 July 2008, the crew of RAIDR 21 was going to do a flyby for the Liberation Day celebration, sure, but they also incorporated maximum training opportunity, including a combat descent—what they call a speed down in the B-52—into their mission profile in order to transition from high to low altitude to set up for the flyby. Something went terribly awry with that speed down, but because of the tremendous depth of the Mariana Trench—nearly seven miles deep—we will never fully know what that was. All we know for certain is that six men died that morning in service to their country. Major Chris “Fireball” Cooper, Major Brent “B-Dub” Williams, Captain Michael “Bull” Dodson, 1st Lieutenant Robert Gerren—a crewmember so young he’d not yet been christened with a call sign—1st Lieutenant Joshua “Shaman” Shepherd, and Colonel George “Doc” Martin gave their all that morning for the greater good.
Five of these young men tragically left behind families—wives and children, moms and dads—back at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana and elsewhere across the country to serve the Continuous Bomber Presence mission on Guam. George Martin, the sixth, was stationed there with me. He was our neighbor up on the hill at Andersen AFB. His house was just west/southwest of mine, overlooking the Philippine Sea. He served as our flight surgeon and number two in command of our base medical clinic. This flight on 21 July 2008 was his first ever in a B-52. He was just getting started with his own family. His wife Ursula gave birth to their only child, Guahan, just 28 days after RAIDR 21 plunged into the ocean. George was everyone’s friend. And he and all the other crewmembers of RAIDR 21 will always be American heroes who died far too young.
I met Dillon McFarland on a dusty football field just outside the school gate at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota where both of our fathers were stationed at the time. It was August of 1976, and I was just about to turn 15 years old. He was the established veteran quarterback on our high school’s freshman football team, and I was the new kid in town who nobody knew. I convinced him at practice with a quarter bribe—the cost of a pop at Bertelsen’s grocery just next door—to defy the coach and give me the ball just once so I could prove myself and earn the running back job. He did, and I did, and from that day on we partnered for four more years both on and off the field. He was one of the best, closest friends I ever had in my life.
Twenty six years later, on a cool November morning in 2002, Dillon “McFly” McFarland was flying his F-16 Viper on a combat training mission over the salt lake beds in northern Utah. The wind was calm, the sky was clear and the ground was covered with water from recent rains, a perfectly still glass mirror that reflected the beautiful light blue sky above. On his inbound run to the simulated target area, at an altitude of 1,350 feet, McFly was engaged from behind by one of his training enemies and began a high-G left hand turn in an attempt to visually acquire the opposing aircraft. Sky looked like ground, ground looked like sky, Dillon had no visual cues available to warn him he was in an insidious descent. His aircraft shattered that perfect glass mirror in an 81 degree left hand turn at 518 knots and exploded in a fireball. Wreckage scattered for nearly a mile across the salt lake bed. The only possible solace I can take is that the visual illusion that robbed my friend of his life also robbed him of awareness about his impending doom.
Dillon “McFly” McFarland was a fighter pilot who died in service to his country. He was a US Air Force Weapons School graduate, and he had lasting, worldwide impact on F-16 equipment, software and tactics. He greatly and forever influenced through preliminary testing and design input, the F-22 Raptor that is our nation’s premier, front-line fighter today. He flew 85 combat missions over the skies of southwest Asia and our own United States during the dark, dark days after 9/11. He was also a consummate family man who left behind his wife, Sandy, who we both went to high school with, and two teenage children, Josh and Ashley. McFly was a confident, almost cocky, extremely capable and highly respected fighter pilot. He was 40 years old. And he was my friend. He is an American hero who died far too young.
I haven’t yet decided what I’m going to do today. Beyond attending this ceremony, beyond getting and wearing a poppy, and beyond observing a moment of silence at 1500 hours, anyway. But within reason, and the rule of law, and the bounds of what my wife will tolerate, I’ll pretty much do whatever it is I want to do. I’m pretty much free to do whatever it is I want to do on any given day because I live right here in the land of the free, the home of the brave. As Ronald Reagan said at Arlington on this day back in 1986, “We must be strong enough to create peace where it does not exist and strong enough to protect it where it does.” And you know what? We are. We are because of the brave men and women who comprise that small fraction of our population--that fraction that holds together the fabric of our society—the ones who are willing to give their all, the ones who gave their all. The ones we remember today, and forever—our heroes and friends who died far too young in service to the United States of America.
God bless them… God bless you… And God bless the USA.