Aiming High in the Air Force: 2004, Part Two: Crash and Burn

The Vegas Strip, seen from my office on base

The year had been rough so far, but with only two months left to go, the worst was yet to come, with only brief moments of excitement to shake things up.

After the inspection ended, my brother, Kevin, came out to visit. He had deployed several months earlier, and was taking his post-deployment leave. He met me at work on Friday, as my flight was holding a barbecue both in celebration of the end of the inspection, as well as in an attempt to address the growing rift that was developing in our ranks. Kevin joined me at my apartment, and we prepared to leave for an evening on the town in Las Vegas.

As we pulled out of the driveway of my apartment complex, Kevin’s rental car was struck by a speeding, drunk driver, who we would later learn was unlicensed, uninsured, and had come into town from a Native American reserviation in Arizona. The other car struck with such force, its front tire rode up the rear end of Kevin’s rental car, causing the other car to flip onto its side as it slid past Kevin’s window. It struck the curb of the median, flipped twice, rolling to a stop on its wheels, perpendicular to the road.

Kevin and I sat in the car in stunned silence. Both of us had deployed to war in relative safety, only to have such a close call on a Friday evening in Las Vegas. The police and ambulance arrived soon, and as we were looked over by the paramedics and gave our statements to the police officers, the details about the other driver came out, and he was taken into custody. Fortunately, Kevin had taken additional insurance on his rental, so it was quickly replaced.

Within a few hours, we were on our way. I took Kevin to Quark’s for dinner, and while we were there, we met another visitor to Vegas. Her name was Hope, and she joined us for the rest of the night. I kept in touch with her for about a year, but eventually we lost track of one another. Kevin stayed another day, but soon had to leave as well. Before he left, Kevin swore to take Nellis off his “dream sheet,” to avoid ever getting stationed there.

F/A-18 (Image courtesy

Another month passed, and my flight found itself preparing for the base’s annual Veterans’ Day airshow. Since a large part of our job was responding in the event of an aircraft crash, we were holding multiple exercise scenarios to prepare ourselves. We were just finishing our checklists for an on-base crash response; I was in the flight’s control center, running my own checklists, when the crash phone rang. I recounted the events that evening on my blog:

“In-Flight Emergency, Wildcat 4. F-18. Single engine failure. Landing Runway 21-Left, will take barrier. ETA 5 minutes.”

OK, fine. We get a couple dozen IFE’s a day. No biggie. I finished writing down the info and hung up the crash phone.

BOOM! I swear, I even felt the friggin’ ground shake.

Ninety seconds later, the crash phone goes off again.

“Ground Emergency, Wildcat 4.” Oh, $#!+. “F-18. Pilot ejected 10 miles NE of field.” That’s less than five miles from my office. I looked out the window. I could even see the pillar of black smoke rising into the air.

It was then I knew this was going to be a bad day…

I didn’t go out to the scene, but the response to the crash still kept me busy. Not long after the air show, I was having difficulties with debt collectors who were harassing me over bills I’d accrued prior to enlisting. Because I’m the type of person who follows the rules, I did what I was supposed to do and went to my supervisor for a referral to a support agency on base that could intercede with the debt collectors while I continued to climb my way out of the hole I’d dug for myself prior to enlisting.

Instead, he gave me a Letter of Reprimand for “financial irresponsibility” that “brought discredit upon the Air Force” and ordered me to move back on base. I hadn’t missed or even been late on a single bill since enlisting, and was only having difficulties with debts that predated my time in the military. It was nearly two weeks before I actually got the appointment that I’d requested in the first place. He had been threatening me with paperwork for even the most minor infractions, and this was precisely what he wanted. He even gave me another Letter of Reprimand for failure to pass my physical fitness test, despite a 15-point increase in my score from my last test, three months earlier. His response was plainly overkill, designed solely to make my life miserable, and make my record look as bad as possible as he and my flight superintendent tried to get me kicked out of the military.

I felt kind of like the zebra

After moving most of my belongings into a storage unit near the main gate of the base, I moved back into the enlisted dorms. Since I was now senior to nearly everyone in the dorms, and all the rooms had been vacated for renovations, I was able to request a specific room. Since I knew the building, I requested the largest room available, and my request was granted.

Soon, it was Christmastime again. Appropriately, my supervisor continued to piss in my Cheerios, by recommending that my promotion to Senior Airman be denied on the basis of my failure of my latest PT test, despite steady improvement on each successive test. I was crushed, and still reeling from being ordered to move back on base, a move that was nearly unprecedented. The only thing that helped keep my spirits up was the gift of airline tickets to visit my mom’s side of the family in Wisconsin for the holidays. Spending time away from all of that with my family helped me cope immensely. Surely, I assured myself, it couldn’t get worse.

I was wrong.

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