By Adam Stone

“Griffin three, this is Griffin one. What is your location?”

“Griffin one, this is Griffin three. Currently at your six o’clock, moving to your nine.”

“Griffin three, say again. Coming in garbled and inaudible.”

“Griffin one, roger that. Currently at your seven o’clock moving to your—”

Silence.

White noise.

Static.

His finger rests on the toggle switch while he listens to the emptiness over the crackling speakers, as if he’s hoping that a voice from the other side, a ghost in the machine, will shed some light on what had happened a few hours before. Finally, the captain flips the switch off, and turns to face his audience.  

Taken when the author was deployed to Iraq. Courtesy of Adam Stone

Taken when the author was deployed to Iraq. Courtesy of Adam Stone

“Those were the last words heard from Griffin one and Griffin three. At approximately zero-one, the two aircraft collided somewhere in this vicinity.” The captain pauses for a moment. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he takes a long, slow deep breath, exhaling the pain in his heart that’s carved clearly on his face. Slowly he begins again, “First responders have been on scene since approximately zero-two. They have cordoned off the area, and subdued all fires. We are here to identify what we can, and to bring the crew home."

Home? Where is home? I’ve heard that “home is where you hang your hat." If that’s true, then we’re bringing them back to the barracks, to their apartments, to their houses. I have also heard “you can’t go home again,” so where do they go? Which is it? Everyone here knows what the captain is referring to, that we’d be bringing them out of the Carolina swamp to return them to wherever they hailed from, to a place that some tried to escape from.

Approximately 75 Marines from multiple units have gathered in the early morning hours on the banks of these North Carolina swamps. We have all been specially trained in emergency reclamation and aircraft recovery, a job we pray never to have to do.

A young lieutenant standing behind the Marines begins to give everyone present a handful of small plastic flags. One red. One white. One blue. Their resemblance to our national ensign does not escape us. I begin picturing flags around the bases at half-mast, flag-draped coffins, words spoken as Old Glory is passed to mother, or to spouse “on behalf of a grateful nation."

The captain continues, “The markers you are being handed are to be placed within the cordoned area, around areas of wreckage, or anything that is part of, or might be a part of the incident.”

“The blue flag is for non-biologic material,” he says.

Non-biologic: You mean the parts of our aircraft we’d learned to love, and spent countless hours repairing. Aircraft that have taken us to places around the world, and have pulled us out of harm’s way. Did we do something to cause all this? Did we forget an important part of the process? Was this our fault? Was this my fault?

The author in Afghanistan in 2010. Courtesy of Adam Stone

The author in Afghanistan in 2010. Courtesy of Adam Stone

“The red flag is for biologic material.”

Biologic: You mean our compatriots, our comrades in arms, our friends, our brothers, our family. Friends whose marriages we celebrated at bachelor parties and receptions, friends we cheered when their children were born over cigars and whiskey, friends we consoled in the bars as we tended to their broken hearts. Friends we will never see again. Friends I will never see again.

The captain touches the bridge of his nose as his forehead wrinkles with worry and tears begin to form in the corner of his eyes. Once again he takes a deep breath and exhales, brushes away his tears and looks back to the Marines.

“The white flag is for the unknown,” the captain finishes.

What can be unknown? I know a femur from a fuselage. I know what bone looks like and what a bearing looks like. I can identify an aircraft tire from my brother, Tucker. What can he mean by “unknown”? We know the difference. I know the difference!

The author in Afghanistan in 2012. Courtesy of Adam Stone

The author in Afghanistan in 2012. Courtesy of Adam Stone

As the Marines stare at their collection of flags, the captain adds one last thing, “You should be aware it’s unlikely there will be survivors, but there’s a chance nonetheless.”

Survivors. Two aircraft collided in the middle of the night over the swamps of North Carolina. How can there be survivors? And if anyone did manage to survive, what will become of their minds and bodies. Is that really survival?

The captain slowly walks between the Marines, touching the shoulders of a few as he passes. Every Marine he touches is holding back their own pain. Their eyes have swollen from tears; all the while they’re wringing their hands or pulling on their clothing. All eyes are on the captain as he stops before one young Marine in the back of the audience who’s barely able to stand. The Marine is riddled with pain, shaking uncontrollably, tears flowing down his face leaving trails in the dust on his cheeks. The captain, wraps him in his arms and they slowly kneel and cry together.

When they break their embrace all eyes shift to the lieutenant who begins assigning Marines to their search areas. We begin donning our protective clothing and respirators; none of us are paying full attention. The lieutenant’s voice is just white noise, like the radio static we heard a few moments before. It’s not out of disrespect; we are thinking of the task at hand: to find those we love. As we wade into the swamps, we hear the lieutenant’s final words to us: “Ok gentlemen, be careful, and bring them home.”

Home. Can we ever truly go there? Have any of us here ever known it. Will a part of me be left in this swamp, or is it already long gone?

I’m silent. This could have been any one of us, could have been me. We all love to fly, we all cherish escaping gravity’s relentless hold. Now, we’re searching for our brothers. I knew all of them. I knew their names. I knew their families, because we are their family. They are my Family.

Deeper into the swamp with my brothers I wade—knee to waist to chest deep. We search relentlessly, barely keeping our heads above the water. Not one person complains about the humidity, or the water sucking all the moisture out of our bodies. No one’s worried about the water moccasins, or the alligators, waiting to pull us down. I refuse to leave behind my brothers and the wreckage to become part of the landscape. All I care about are my flags, so my brothers may return home.

The author has retired now, and is working on his college degree. Courtesy of Adam Stone

The author has retired now, and is working on his college degree. Courtesy of Adam Stone

Red for biologics. White for unknown. Blue for non-biologics.

Red flag. Is for goodbye my friend.

Blue flag. Is for there is no repair this time.

Red flag. Is for you will be missed.

Blue flag. Is for no more turnarounds for you.

Red flag. Is for Semper Fi, my brother.

White flag...

What I hadn’t learned during training to be a crew chief in helicopters or to work on military aircraft—what nobody is told, the part they conveniently left out—is that when jet fuel ignites, it burns at such an alarming temperature it is almost impossible to extinguish. It burns so hot that it will melt bone to bearing.

White flag!

A flame so intense it will fuse femur to fuselage!

White flag!

A blaze so violent it will merge helmet to hair and skin!

White flag. White Flag. WHITE FLAG.

•••

Adam Stone is a retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant with 20 years of service, including multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and numerous peacekeeping deployments around the world. He is married with four kids. He’s a stay-at-home dad and beginning his college career in pursuit of an English literature degree.

Read more of our stories