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Geoff Metcalf
February 3, 2003

The eyes of the nation are focused on the tragedy of Columbia’s loss. Likewise the nation was galvanized by the previous tragedy of Challenger. However, in the shadow of these high-profile catastrophes we should recognize the inherent risk factors of the kind of work in which these brave men and women engage. It is remarkable and fortuitous that we have suffered so few accidents. That is testimony to the dedication, attention to detail and professionalism of those engaged in the work.

We have in many ways become jaded. We tend to take extraordinary events as routine when they are in fact anything but routine.

Media attention has and will be focused on the causes and effects of the Columbia's loss. However, every year we lose brave men and women in assorted training accidents that receive little if any attention from anyone other than the families of those who have (like the crews of Columbia and Challenger) given their lives in service to the country.

July 14th, 1971 I was a student in the Infantry Officer’s Basic Course at Fort Benning, Ga. We were participating in an Infantry Platoon in the attack exercise. My platoon was assaulting an aggressor position on a hilltop, and we were engaged by mock strafing from "enemy" jets. As we moved across the saddle of terrain jets "buzzed" us real low.

We were running up the hill when suddenly an explosion knocked several of us off our feet. The concussion was unlike anything I knew. I felt as if I had just been hit with a mattress swung by a giant. None of us were injured, but we were overwhelmingly confused.

I was wearing an AN/PRC-77 radio on my back, which attracted the attention of the adviser/lane grader. He grabbed me and one other student, and we jogged off to what looked like a grass fire.

We arrived at the crash site and learned what had happened. The squadron leader had come in very low and apparently suffered some kind of mechanical malfunction. Someone had seen a parachute deploy just before the crash.

We walked through a low grass fire and found the wreckage of the plane and then the body of the pilot. His face was peaceful, but the rest was grim. We placed the body in his parachute.

A jeep had driven into the crash site (despite the flames on the ground), and I sat on the hood of the jeep with the broken body cradled in my arms as we drove out to secured area where a helicopter had landed to retrieve the body.

I later learned that the pilot was a 30-year-old major who had served two combat tours in Vietnam. He had a wife and two children. He had survived combat and died in training.

Every year untold numbers of military personnel die in training. Their loss is no less horrific than the loss of the men and women on Columbia or Challenger.

Stuff happens! When people engage in dangerous activity, percentages and the inevitability of the law of unintended consequences, accidents happen.

I never learned the name of that pilot, but I still pray for his wife and children.

Not a Waste

Someone said, "What a waste!" as we loaded the broken body of that pilot into the helicopter. It was NOT a waste. It was a tragedy but it was not a waste. Everyone who witnessed the events of July 14th, 1971 was impacted by that loss in various ways. Some learned tactical lessons, some learned moral lessons, some emotional lessons. But whatever the lesson learned many people benefited in some measure by the extraordinary price paid by that pilot.

For at least this news cycle we will be inculcated with the names of Columbia’s crew. We will learn more minutiae about NASA, the space shuttle, and each of the detailed backgrounds of any and all principles than anyone wants or needs.

The shuttle crash will probably dominate the news cycle until we eventually attack Iraq.

Some will argue all the noise is sound and fury signifying nothing - and they will be wrong.

As we grieve, mourn or pray for the loss of Columbia’s crew, I would ask you all to include in your gestures the routine, chronic, and unsung men and women who (like the crews of Columbia and Challenger) have paid YOUR dues with their lives.

Dr. Robert Jarvick, who invented the artificial heart, once said: "Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them. They make things happen." Many of them are dead soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. Please remember them too.

© 2003 Geoff Metcalf - All Rights Reserved


Geoff is a veteran media performer. He has had an eclectic professional background covering a wide spectrum of radio, television, magazine, and newspapers.  A former Green Beret and retired Army officer he is in great demand as a speaker. Metcalf has hosted his radio talk show on the ABC/Disney owned and operated KSFO and in worldwide syndication.