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September Commander's Corner

  • Published
  • By Lt.Col. Daniel "Tripp" Bowes
  • 157th Fighter Squadron

On July 28, 2020, the Swamp Fox Family suffered a tremendous loss. Maj. Rick “Guns” Garin passed away after valiantly fighting to overcome complications following a surgical procedure. Guns was an exemplary Swamp Fox, earning his way to a pilot position by serving as an enlisted member of the aircrew flight equipment shop. His hard work, dedication, and natural abilities enabled him to rise to the top of his career field.  As the 761st F-16 graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School, he would led the 157th Fighter Squadron in combat operations during our 2018 deployment to the Middle East. Guns was an exceptional individual and our organization will struggle to overcome the deficit created by his loss. We will also struggle to cope with the loss of Guns as a member of our Swamp Fox Family.

There are very few things in life that are guaranteed. But it is certain that we will all meet our end. We will also have to endure the loss of many others who we hold close to our hearts. Resilience in these moments is vitally important and must be addressed to ensure the grieving process is completed. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined the five stages of grief in 1969 as she studied the feelings of patients suffering from terminal illness. The stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Many are familiar with these characteristics. But we fail to understand the process. The stages are not rigid, do not have to occur in any specific order, and may not occur at all.  The most important aspect of the concept is that there is no typical response to loss, because no loss is typical. Every individual will deal with loss in their own way. It is important to understand that grief will be a roller coaster of emotions, so prepare yourself for the ride.

As an organization we went through several stages in just one day. On August 8, we honored Guns with a memorial ceremony to remember the positive impact he left on McEntire. This was an important step in the healing process as we paid tribute to our fallen brother. We then embraced several fighter pilot traditions that may seem strange unless you understand the background. Throwing a ‘nickel on the grass’ is a tradition that dates back to the ancient Greeks. Coins were often placed in the mouths of deceased family members to pay the toll for their ferryman who transported their spirit across the river Styx into the afterlife. Today, the tradition has been modified to leaving a coin as a sign of respect. Fighter pilots in World War I began placing nickels on their wingman’s grave and we honor that tradition to this day.

Next we initiated a roll call. Roll calls began during World War I as well. After a mission, roll would be taken to determine the status of every pilot who flew the combat mission. If a member didn’t respond, then he had not made it back from that sortie. A bell was rung in his honor and a final toast was made to honor his service. With modern technology, we often know immediately when a combat loss occurs. But we still meet regularly to perform the roll call and honor the tradition. Not hearing Guns respond to his name was difficult but it was another step forward in our grieving process.

Finally, we burned a perfectly good piano. Why? Because it is fun. There are several stories that explain this tradition but the most likely is that several pilots at the Officers’ Club decided to burn a piano to honor the fallen during World War II. Pilots enjoyed burning the refined musical instrument as a symbol of defiance as they were struggling with the hardships of fighting on a daily basis and losing many of their squadron mates.  The purpose remains the same today. We sang some songs, performed a toast, and watched the fire slowly consume the piano as we called the names of many pilots that passed well before they should have. It was a fitting celebration to honor the lives of warriors.

We transitioned through many stages of grief in just that one day and night. We will revisit many of those stages again at seemingly random times. It is important to understand that all of the emotions are normal.  It is okay to laugh, cry, yell, or even sit in silence. We are all in this together. We have to take care of one another and ourselves. If you are struggling with this or any other situation, please seek help. It is perfectly normal to ask for help when you are struggling. Talk to your commander, a friend, a co-worker, a chaplain, a counselor, or any of the numerous resources that our organization provides. I am proud of what Guns achieved in his life. I am also proud of how the Swamp Fox Family has come together the support one another in this dark moment. Semper Primus.