I was a part of a helicopter squadron attached to the U.S.S Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier. Our motto was, “We Rescue. We Protect. We Deliver.” I never thought about how much weight those words carried until we had to put them into play.
Our crew had just finished our night shift workload on the flight deck. We headed down to the shop for some much-deserved rest. One of the best things about the night shift was how calm everything was once the flight schedule was completed. The ship had such a gentle rocking motion that night that I couldn’t help but to gradually dose off against the heavy weather coats laying carelessly on the floor. At about three o’clock in the morning, though, a sequence of monotone bell rings blasted through the intercoms, breaking that calmness, as I subconsciously counted them off: one, two, three, four… oh no… five… please stop… six. “Maybe I miscounted,” I thought desperately to myself, “this can’t really be happening.” Then the six rings were followed by the message, “Man overboard. Man overboard. Man overboard on the starboard side.” After the set of instructions, the announcement finished off with the stern, panic evoking statement: “This is not a drill.”
We rushed to get our protective gear back on. Dashing up to the flight deck to our designated rescue helicopter, we got to work preparing it for flight. Our muscles were burning from the lifting, the wrenching, the carrying, and the intense list of other things to do, but we could not slow down. There was a life in the water somewhere depending on all of us. As the helicopter’s four folded blades spread and locked into place above us, we stepped back and formed a safety semi-circle around its circumference. The four blades began to spin in uniform union until they no longer resembled four separate units but one large rapidly rotating disk. Beyond the hum of the blades above me, I could hear the muster calls from the intercom. About five thousand personnel had to be accounted for and the missing were reported. Soon enough, only one name would be left. The lights went out on the flight deck so that we were standing in darkness with nothing but brightly glowing red and green wands ready to direct our next move. Then, we waited. Our eyes scanned the black water in the distance hopefully expecting to see if the lost victim’s strobe light on his float coat somehow activated upon impact… that is, if he was wearing one at all.
The announcement continued on as it counted off minutes, “Fifteen minutes have elapsed. Report to your departments immediately.” The intercom listed off about twenty names that had not been seen yet. “Twenty minutes has elapsed.” The list of names had shortened to about ten this time. “Twenty-five minutes has elapsed.” There were now two lost personnel. Only one splash was reported earlier. We backed away from the helicopter to give it room to take off. It’s been almost half an hour by this point. Finally, we received one final announcement: “Man overboard secured. Man overboard secured.”
What!? How!? Why!? My mind was juggling questions everywhere as our crew was instructed to secure the helicopter once again. After more muscle burning preparations, we finally headed back downstairs to our shop where our divisional officer was waiting with an explanation. We all settled down immediately to hear the story that had us on edge for the past half hour. As it went on, my emotions shifted from anxiety to confusion to pure anger: some fool decided to throw a big bag of trash overboard in an undesignated area, and it made a human-sized splash.