TV images taken from a helicopter showed a crater 15 feet deep and 20 feet wide in the Florida sand which was filling with water – the crater was the result of the supersonic crash of a Navy F/A-18C from 40K feet.
This crater was the reason beepers were chiming all over our Air Force base in May of 2001 – summoning teams from the clinic, Mental Health, Mortuary Affairs, Civil Engineering, and a dozen other offices including my chapel office.
Responding to our pages, we were directed to a staging area where some of us began reciting stories from a previous recovery mission when we encountered water moccasins and alligators while looking for the remains of an Air Force pilot whose plane had cut a mile-long swath through a Florida swamp.
Once again, our base was responsible for Search and Recovery, so we loaded supplies and drove our bus 90 miles to join up with our Navy counterparts a few hundred yards from the crash site.
At the site, our Officer in Charge (OIC) stepped off the bus to speak privately with the Navy OIC. A few minutes later, our OIC returned to tell us that these weren’t just any “Navy folks” – these were fellow squadron members of the downed pilot.
“The Navy will recover all aircraft parts,” announced our OIC, “but the Navy is asking our help to recover their comrade.”
“Chaplain,” our OIC asked, his voice no less commanding for its softer and more reverential tone, “the Navy is requesting that you express a prayer for their missing flyer.”
I stuttered, asking if we knew the faith of the flyer.
“Doesn’t matter,” boomed the Navy OIC as he joined us on the bus, “You’re praying for all of us.” And with that, the bus emptied and I began the prayer.
“Lord, our prayer is as it has always been: We ask that you guard those who fly. We don’t yet know why our fellow airman fell, but we do know that you were with him and you are still with him. Allow our actions here today to honor his service to his country and to his creator. Amen.”
Within the next eight hours, we constructed nine screened sifters which allowed us to sift through mountains of fuel-soaked sand. As we dumped hundreds of buckets into the sifters, anything larger than a marble remained on top of the screen. We found nothing bigger than a softball.
When something was found, a call would ring out – “find!” People stopped sifting – reverence held us still. The flight surgeon examined it and if it seemed mechanical, it would be sorted with similar-sized objects.
But on the few occasions when it was suspected to be organic, I would come alongside the mortuary affairs officer who would use his gloved-hand to place it in the flag-draped ice chest.
The details get a bit morbid, but suffice to say, we searched for three weeks finding no more than a few pounds of remains.
We had many prayers in those weeks, but sometime after our first prayer, we stopped scanning the horizon for the miraculous sign of a parachute. However, in those weeks we saw many other signs of miracles.
Miraculously this team worked together to honor their comrade. Under most circumstances, sifting through sand to find parts of a friend’s body would be much too gruesome a task to consider – yet in performing this sacred sifting, each team member was honoring the sacrifice of the airman and the
sorrow of his family.
The faith demonstrated by the recovery team was indeed enough to move mountains – mountains of sand. Although God could not personally sift through this sand to recover this young man’s body, God miraculously used the hands of these comrades to become the hands of God.
Despite the fact that the machine failed and that a person was reduced to such minute fragments in a fraction of a second, the human spirit persevered and overcame the failure. And the moral of the story is – the human spirit always will.