A hero's farewell
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 16, 2009 1:46 PM
Members of the Air Force Honor Guard carry the casket of Capt. Mark McDowell into the Fort Meyer Old Post Chapel before burial services at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Thursday.
Family, friends and fellow airmen of Capt. Mark McDowell gather at the Fort Meyer Old Post Chapel.
Katie McDowell, left, the widow of Air Force Capt. Mark McDowell, accepts the American flag that was draped over her husband's casket from Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Carrol Chandler during burial services at Arlington National Cemetery Thursday. Also pictured is McDowell's mother, Barbara Thomas.
Capt. Mark R. McDowell
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Katie McDowell broke down when Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Carrol Chandler kneeled before her Thursday morning holding a folded flag, which, moments earlier, had been draped over her husband, Mark's, casket.
The Air Force fighter pilot and his weapon systems officer, Capt. Thomas Gramith, were lost nearly three months ago when their F-15E Strike Eagle crashed in Afghanistan.
For Capt. McDowell's young widow, the pain of her partner's absence was still raw as she laid yellow flowers on his final resting place after a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery.
Rain was falling along with tears as a lone military bugler played taps -- and as the crack of a gun salute rang out across the rows of simple, white headstones.
McDowell's comrades, men and women from the 336th Fighter Squadron and top officials from the 4th Fighter Wing, tried to maintain stoic faces, but they wore a grief many of them say has not yet faded -- not when they flew memorial passes over the site of the crash, not when they returned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base from a four-month stint at Bagram Airfield late last month.
Strike Eagles were supposed to fly over the service in the missing man formation but were grounded due to inclement weather.
But for the men who had come to honor their "hero," no formal acknowledgement was necessary.
Their friend and fellow airman will always be among them.
Shortly after they left the grave site, those closest to McDowell came together in a hotel ballroom to tell stories about a role model, a man of faith, a fierce fighter pilot -- to laugh and cry as they reached back to their most memorable moments with "Pitbull."
There was his "warm smile" they said always lit up a room.
And there he was in the cockpit of an F-15E, leading despite his youthfulness with an attention to detail and pursuit of perfection characteristic of much more seasoned aviators.
Capt. Justin Goldstein called him a role model -- both as an aviator and human being -- before reliving the moment he learned the fate of one of his best friends.
It was July 18, a day that started out like any other at Bagram.
Goldstein and his flying partner entered the 336th headquarters prepared to fly.
"We kind of heard some mumbling that something had happened, but we didn't know what, and when we got to work and found out, they basically put us into a room and said, 'These are the facts: A plane went down. This is who was in it. Go get dressed and get ready to fly,'" Goldstein said. "So we basically had to deal with that. ... To try and compartmentalize all that with the shock, it was just unreal. I can still remember sitting in the briefing room. We didn't even brief the flight. We just sat there and stared at each other. It was definitely emotional."
Capt. Nick Foster was already in the air fulfilling the daily charge that faced members of the fighter squadron: To protect Coalition forces on the ground.
"We got told right away, and about five minutes later, I went into brief to fly. Initially, I didn't want to fly because I was just going through the emotions. ... I wanted to kind of take things in. But flying was almost a comfort zone," he said. "So we flew over the site a couple of times and did a couple rolls on top of it for (McDowell and Gramith) -- kind of like a memorial."
Goldstein didn't end up flying until the next day -- until after the remains of his friend were saluted and secured on a homeward bound plane.
"That night, when we put the remains in the airplane to send them home, I think that's when it hit home for most of us -- seeing those flags and watching them," he said. "So the next day when we went flying, we did it for them. (Our commander) said, 'You know, the mission goes on. Pitbull would fight the fight, so we're going to fight the fight for him and Lag.' So that's what we did."
And when they crossed over the crash site, they, too, honored the fallen.
"As focused as you were on the mission, in those few moments that you were flying over it, you were definitely thinking about Tom and Mark. It got really quiet in the cockpit," Goldstein said. "For a while, we were going over it every day if we had the gas. We would go over it just to make sure that nobody was there that shouldn't be -- kind of to protect that ground. It's sacred to us."
336th Commander Lt. Col. Neil Allen said flying over the setting of such tragedy brought enough closure to the incident to get his squadron through its tour.
"I think that the guys gained a lot of strength in knowing that had it been them, Pitbull and Lag would have stepped forward and gone back into the air. There wasn't a lot of choice about it and everybody stepped forward -- kept doing the mission we had been called to do," he said. "It was very inspirational for me to watch because you can't teach that. It comes from deep inside you."
But now that they are home, the Rocketeers have other "no-fail" missions.
They are the ones left to remember -- to ensure their comrades' sacrifice was not in vain.
"Now I'm always doing everything the best that I can because that's the kind of example Mark set as an aviator," Foster said. "So every time I fly, if I think I'm getting tired or I'm getting behind or something, I say, 'Hey, Pitbull is the kind of guy who was always prepared, the kind of guy who always does the best he can.' I always fly with him in the back of my mind. It's kind of like motivation. So I do my best in memory of what he stood for as far as flying goes."
McDowell's squadron has another mission, too.
They will be there to help Katie cope -- with the loss, with moving on and with guarding Mark's memory.
"We're taking care of her. She's one of us -- always will be," Goldstein said. "I hope nobody thinks Mark is going to be forgotten just because this ceremony is over because Katie is a Rocket. She is one of the bros, and we're going to love her just as much as we would if Mark were here."
McDowell's father, Stan, said he is grateful for the Air Force family he never knew he had until his son was lost -- that the presence of so many who knew Mark at Arlington meant the world to those lucky enough to know him from birth.
"Since July 18, there has been one thing that I have kind of struggled with. ... In a part of the Bible it says we ought to have joy in our trials and tribulations. I have kind been struggling with that. How do you find joy in this tragedy?" he said. "Well, I have found some joy. ... One joy I have found is the joy of family. ... We have the joy of our salvation and we have the joy of Christ loving us. But the thing our whole family has found out through this whole tragedy is that we have the joy of other families.
"It's been overwhelming how we have been treated, and for that, our family wants to say thank you to each and every one of you," McDowell added. "I love my Lord and savior Jesus Christ. I love my wife. ... I love Mark. I love my family. And I truly love each and every one of you."
Back at Arlington, the crowd had long since dissipated.
But those in that hotel ballroom clad in Air Force blues were still focused on just what it means to be buried there.
Foster said it was fitting that McDowell was laid to rest among generations of American war fighters.
"Those guys gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country," he said. "They, just like the rest of us, were willing to lay everything out on the line for something greater than themselves -- just like everybody else who is buried in that cemetery."
"We will remember him, I will remember him, as a fighter pilot ... a guy who thinks about others before he thinks of himself, a guy who would always leave things better than he found them," he said. "Probably the biggest thing though, he was a hero. He laid it out on the line for people he didn't know -- day after day and night after night."
And Goldstein will find comfort in knowing that one of his best friends is now among others recognized by their country for valor, patriotism and a commitment to the cause of freedom for all.
"Knowing that Mark is there -- the caliber of people he is surrounded by and is going to be with during his eternal rest -- it's special, and to know that it's sacred ground that's always going to be there, that's something we're always going to have," he said. "You know, Mark is in a better place. ... I just hope he doesn't ever become just another number. We're never going to forget him. Everything I do now, flying or not flying, is to be like Mark. He was that role model I wanted to be."