COLUMN: Enid stands, and grieves, with Team Vance

Enid is, today, a community in mourning.

Thursday, the lives of two airmen were cut tragically short in a training mishap at Vance Air Force Base. Team Vance and this community will forever be impacted by that tragedy.

The families of the airmen who died are forever changed. I cannot comprehend their loss. Along with so many of you in this community, all I can offer is sincere prayer, and my own measure of empathetic grief and gratitude.

As a reporter, I've written about this tragic incident. As a reporter, I maintain a detached, impersonal relating of the facts. But, I am not writing this as a reporter. I am writing as a columnist, and more importantly, as a neighbor, in a grieving community.

Anyone who has spent much time around the military is not unfamiliar with the aftermath of such an incident.

My class from the Naval Academy lost four shipmates in the line of duty since our graduation in 1998. Given the ensuing constant state of war, perhaps we should consider ourselves blessed to not have lost more.

But, even with 18 years of war and counting, three of our four fallen shipmates died not in combat, but in training mishaps. All three of those mishaps involved aircraft.

The closest to me was my company mate and friend, and companion on many a beer-soaked night in Annapolis, Lieutenant Raul Jimenez. While serving as an instructor pilot, he died, along with his student, in a T-34 crash near Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in 2006. He was the only one of our line of duty deaths to live past 30.

My point in sharing this isn't to draw some equivalence with the losses Thursday at Vance. I intend only to point out these brave young men and women perform, every day, an incredibly dangerous job. They train for the possibility of defending us in war, in some foreign place. But, statistically, they stand a far greater chance of giving their lives in the service of this country during training than in combat.

They are aware of these risks. And yet, every day, right here in our community, they do the job. They do it out of love — love for this country, for this community, for each other and for the job.

The oft-quoted words of Royal Canadian Air Force pilot John Gillespie Magee's poem "High Flight" are appropriate, I think, to their sense of duty, and their love of the mission: "Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings ... and, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand and touched the face of God."

While World War II raged around him, Magee died in a flying training accident, at age 19.

The airmen who answer the call to serve, and drive through the gates of Vance every morning to climb into cockpits, share the same loves and risks as Magee. Sadly, on Thursday, in spite of a second-to-none safety record at Vance, two members of our community shared his fate.

The men and women who take on this task are remarkable human beings. Again, I cannot imagine the loss felt by their families, their squadron mates and their friends. But, their loss is felt keenly by the community, because to Enid these airmen represented the very best in our midst, and of our hopes and dreams for what we want this community and this country to be.

Their lives were inextricably woven into the fabric and identity of Enid. Even for those of us who did not know them personally, we know, on this day, something is different, something is missing, in our community.

We know other brave men and women are ready to stand in the gap left by those who died. But, they can never be replaced. We should forever be grateful for their lives, for the love and laughter they left behind, and ultimately, for the supreme expression of love they gave us in death.

In closing, I'd like to offer for our family in Team Vance these words from the "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" hymn: "O Spirit, whom the Father sent to spread abroad the firmament; O Wind of heaven, by thy might save all who dare the eagle's flight, and keep them by thy watchful care from every peril in the air."

And, for those we lost on Thursday, from the Book of Common Prayer: "O God, who by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ destroyed death, and brought life and immortality to light: Grant that your servants, being raised with him, may know the strength of his presence, and rejoice in his eternal glory; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."

God bless you all. And please, keep the families and members of Team Vance in your hearts and in your prayers in this difficult time.

Neal is a News & Eagle columnist and staff writer. He can be reached at jneal@enidnews.com, on Facebook and Twitter @JamesNealwriter and online at jamesrneal.com.

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