• Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. John McCarthy
  • 4th Component Maintenance Squadron
The military has always been a tight-knit group of men and women. We travel the world and establish friendships that develop into lifelong associations. We use words like "camaraderie" and "esprit de corps" to describe the relationships and ties we have with each other.

I want to describe how one of my experiences 17 years ago influenced my life and view on the people I call friends.

Each year on June 25, I take a moment to remember five friends no longer here: Capts. Christopher Adams and Leland Haun, Master Sgt. Michael George Heiser, Staff Sgt. Kevin Johnson and Airman 1st Class Justin Woods.

These Airmen were assigned to the 4411th Rescue Squadron on temporary duty from the 71st Rescue Squadron, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., in support of the Southern No-Fly zone in Iraq.
They were lost this day in 1996 in the terrorist bombing at the Khobar Towers. The explosion killed 19 Servicemen and wounded hundreds of others, including civilians of various nationalities.

This year marks the 17th anniversary of that tragic event. Although I am no longer assigned to the unit, I still feel a personal connection to those who suffered and I stay in touch with several of them from time-to-time. We talk about life and what happened that night in addition to watching videos others have made about the incident.

Three years ago while surfing a social media website, I received a simple message from a fellow friend and survivor that read, "Thank you." After responding to the message, the sender said, "Thank you for coming to look for me that day 16 years ago. If you hadn't come looking for me I may have lost you, my friend." Such a simple comment took me back to that night as it replayed in my mind.

I walked upstairs to the maintenance production supervisor's room looking for a friend who stayed at work to troubleshoot an aircraft engine malfunction. I decided to stay in the supervisor's room instead of returning to my room to talk with some friends. About 10 minutes later, a security policeman entered the room saying, "Get out! Something is going to happen."

I ran downstairs when the blast occurred. Although I have no recollection of this happening, I was later informed that I went flying into the stairwell wall when the bomb exploded.

What I do remember is the next several hours of searching and accounting for everyone in the squadron being the most intense of my life. We were directed to leave the area near the damaged building and regroup outside of the dining facility. This is where we began to account for survivors and when I discovered we had a list of those who didn't make it.

While completing the accountability check we kept coming up one short. In about an hour or two, we finally determined it was an Airman who went home on leave a few weeks prior.

My co-workers and I sat along the curb next to the chow hall while we put the pieces of the night together. As I sat there shirtless, I had used my uniform blouse and t-shirt as bandages for members who were injured, a doctor walked by and noticed my head placed on my knees. He bent down and asked if I was OK, I said I was and he went on to help others.

The next 48 hours were spent hearing one another's stories and reliving the events of that night. Those of us who survived the explosion became a very close family of friends, helping one another.

Back home, friends came from everywhere to offer condolences, and our nation's leadership came to honor those we lost. President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Sheila Widnall offered us kind words.

About a month later, on a Sunday afternoon, I heard a knock on my garage door. It was an Airman standing there. With tears running down his cheeks, he wanted to tell me he was glad I was alive. I found out a few days later this young man had recently saved another one of our Airmen and his friend from drowning in the ocean. It is amazing how climatic events trigger the emotions.

As the years have gone by, I run into folks who were there that night. We share stories and our feelings; we are bound by history to one horrific night in June 1996.

My friends are here for me, as I am for them, to lean on another in times of crisis and peace. Although it was an unfortunate circumstance which brought us closer, I am grateful for them more today.

I know my time in the Air Force is coming to an end, but the one thing I will miss the most is my friends and those I have met and served with. That is what it is all about ... FRIENDS!