Unforgettable discoveries at Kalaeloa
September 17th, 2008

coastguardhelo.jpgThe sun was hot. I hadn't been to Kalaeloa. It's flat and hot even around the oasis of the Coast Guard Air Station there. Parking was hard. I walked from my car and around the front of the hangar. There were thousands of people inside and spilling out and flowers everywhere and a hush.

The men and women of the Coast Guard, with their spouses and children, were there in that hangar, one huge family, embracing, huddling together to deal with the day. The fire department was there in force. So was the police department and DLNR. I didn't know DLNR had a police force. There were uniforms I'd never seen before.

Everyone outside had come crisp but everyone was wilting in the sun. I stood in the shadow of a helicopter propeller. It wasn't very wide but it saved me. Some people were looking so hot you knew they were suffering. But if they were overcome, it was rather by the power of the event.

The memorial opened with chaplain's prayers. Well done, straightforward prayers, decent, sincere, tasteful and appropriate. There were many Hawaiian words, as is the custom. Then there were remarks from their captain about the four lost crewmen, a rescue swimmer, a flight mechanic, a pilot instructor, and the executive officer of the air station.

It wasn't lost on me that the Commandant had flown in for this funeral. His plane and attendants were on the tarmac a few feet away. He would leave to handle Galveston a short time later. He spoke of the four, with pride and thanks, and he decorated them each posthumously. We could do no less, but of course it could never be enough.

It came through to me, and everyone, that even though we don't know exactly how they died, we do know they died as heroes in the performance of duty. Heroes not only in the moment but heroes in the quality of their careers, and they would not be forgotten. Nor would they be easily replaced.

Their wives and children were there in the front, hardly visible from the back, but you could feel them there, and we were all with them. It was sad, and unforgettable.

There was a flyover, fast and close. Coast Guard helicopters whipping across the field right over our heads, taking a lei to drop at sea where they died. As these survivors flew by, a rifle squad on the other side of the field fired salutes in the air. They were far away from us, but the reports were loud and sharp, tearing.

When someone said that this will conclude our memorial, people stood there for the longest time without moving or saying anything. There were tables of food in the hangar next door, but people didn't go there right away. They were not done yet.

The admirals, at least three, moved into the hangar next door, and the people followed and began to talk to each other again.  The event was palpably surreal. I think people were truly touched and having a hard time trying to make sense of it. I know I was.

One thing is that the Coast Guard is more complex, and perhaps demanding, than it was when I was in, and somehow it's also better at what it does. It struck me that the Coast Guard has many friends here. It's a working part of the community, touching so many, closer than before.

And I thought of what others were thinking. I thought that they are thinking what I'm thinking - how lucky we are to have people so dedicated doing what they do. That these men and women spend every day to protect and save others. That they are our guardians, and that they are genuine and good people.

So I walked away from the crowds in the hangar and through the orange and white aircraft on the tarmac, and I thought of the men and women charged with caring for them, and us.

The Coast Guard driver saw me in the hot sun and he took me to my car. It was a kindness, and an expression of the ethic of that place. I didn't know him but I liked him and those he worked with, and those who taught and encouraged him to be what he was - a guardian.

Then I came home, slowly, in thoughts of my country.

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One Response to “Unforgettable discoveries at Kalaeloa”

  1. Della Au Belatti:

    Thanks Jay for your heartfelt words. Although I wasn't in attendance, you paint a vivid, poignant, and stark picture of the events and emotions of the day that will remain in my thoughts and shape my gratitude for those in the Coast Guard who have served and continue to serve our community.