By Mathew Reily, HMH-465, Iraq ’06-07
My grandfather passed away this year at the age of 92. He was married to my grandmother for 65 years, he raised 6 kids, worked as a successful businessman for years. He was also a devoted grandfather to almost 20 grandkids. To say the least, he lived a blessed life. But there was always something different about grandpa, like he was keeping some kind of secret from the whole world. Whatever it was, my grandfather was always my hero, even if I didn’t know why.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first noticed them. Maybe 9 or 10. They hung in the living room, on a small wooden plaque, above a few pieces of colored ribbon. I didn’t understand what it all meant, but I remember being fascinated.
One day I asked him what they were. He laughed and said matter of factly, “my wings”. That was that.
As I got older I forgot about it. Time moved on. Girls occupied my free time and visiting grandpa took less priority.
September 11, 2001 happened during my senior year of high school. One of those planes flew within eyesight of my school on it’s way into infamy. Not wanting to miss the adventure, my buddy Steve and I did what young men do: we joined the Marines! He went into the infantry and I went into aviation.
At Camp LeJune the Staff Sergeant called my name out: “Reilly! 6500! Aviation Ordnance!” Aviation Ordnance? What the hell does that mean!?
The next 4 years took me around the world, but nowhere close to the desert. All the while I would send grandpa a letter from some far flung place like Guam or Japan, and drop in for a visit when home on leave.
And then my buddy Steve got wounded in Iraq. Two deployments under his belt, and I hadn’t done much of anything. I was almost out of the Corps, and the thought of going back to our small Upstate NY town without “going over” seemed unbearable, if not downright shameful. So, I made a deal with the devil. The war in Iraq was at its peak, and the US military was planning an offensive called “The Surge”. I would reenlist for 2 years, and get orders cut for the next unit deploying from Miramar to Iraq. It seemed easy enough.
The day I checked in to HMH-465, my OIC asked me if I would consider flying. “We are short on enlisted aircrew, and with our deployment coming up it would be a real asset.” Sure I said, without giving it much thought. The next few months found me in training for the upcoming tour in western Iraq. I earned my gold wings right around the time we deployed, and boy was grandpa proud.
I remember the day Lt. Col. Tobin pinned my Combat Aircrew Wings (w/3 stars) on my chest. He said to our small formation “You’re all part of an elite fraternity now.” I knew that, but not really. Shortly thereafter, I wrote a letter to grandpa telling him about my wings and how proud I was. A few weeks later he wrote me back, it was short and to the point. He said he knew the feeling, but we would talk when I came home.
As my leave drew closer to ending, I stopped by grandpa’s house. Grandma was out grocery shopping and it was just us. We talked for 2 straight hours! Not the talk of grandfather to grandson, but like old friends. Grandpa had a million questions about flying combat helicopter missions in Iraq. “Are you still shooting the .50 cal?”, “No liberty?!”, “No booze?” “What’s this military coming too!”
Grandpa never stepped foot in a helicopter. He never flew a mission with GPS. He was hard pressed to believe that women served as combat pilots, and damn good ones too. No sir. He came from a different time. He earned his gunners wings in a B-24 over Nazi occupied Europe. 60 years separated our service, two different branches, entirely different aircraft, it seems so different. But it’s not.
We found common ground in the bravery of the men we flew with. The loyalty to your crew and mission. The undying belief that you would never let them down, even if it meant your own life. Grandpa and I, years apart in age, became best friends right then and there.
My grandfather was buried with military honors. A true patriot. His wings are now on my wall, next to my own. I think he would be proud of that.
Lt. Col Tobin was absolutely correct, this is an elite fraternity.
Mathew Reilly, email@example.com