In 1994, I was a Staff Sergeant in the United States Air Force stationed at Fairchild AFB, just outside of Spokane, Washington. I served 8 years in the USAF and loved it. I did not have a combat job, so even during the first Gulf War I was never deployed to a war zone. But during 4 days in June, 1994, I and the rest of the folks stationed at Fairchild AFB experienced the death of 10 people from our community.
On June 20, 1994, Dean Mellberg shot 5 people at the Fairchild AFB Hospital before he was himself shot by Senior Airman Andy Brown (click here to watch a video of Andy Brown being interviewed in 2008). Brown was a security policeman on bike patrol that day when the shooting started and he responded. After seeing Mellberg and ordering him to stop, Brown took him down with his 9mm pistol from 70 yards away. That is an incredibly difficult shot, but if Brown had not been successful, many more could have died that day.
The shooting took place right behind the neighborhood I lived in. I can remember rushing home and seeing some guys I knew from the security police in sniper positions on roofs in our neighborhood. I can still remember the blood stains on the pavement near the hospital visible from the walking path behind our house for weeks after the shooting.
Four days later, on June 24, 1994, my birthday, Lt. Col Bud Holland killed himself and 3 of our officers when he flew his B-52 aircraft beyond its operational limits, lost control, and crashed. Holland had a history of reckless flying, but a failure in leadership allowed him to continue to endanger himself and his crews. The crash was caught on video by several sources because it was a practice flight for an airshow demonstration – the last one before the B-52 wing was scheduled to be redeployed to another base. I clearly remember the sound and feel of the explosion from the crash, and standing outside my workplace that morning watching the plume of smoke from the fire.
It was a very surreal period of time. A few weeks before the hospital incident, I was part of the official burial team for a guy from our squadron that had committed suicide. I did not really know the guy, but he had few friends, so I volunteered to participate in his funeral when the call went out. Too much death in such a short period of time. I separated from the USAF in January of 1995 because I was an enlisted guy that had just earned a Master’s degree and I was too old to be accepted as an officer. It was time to move on.
I’m glad I served my country. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. I will encourage my two children to make the same decision someday as well. On this Memorial Day, I am grateful for all that have served and continue to serve us, especially those that paid the ultimate cost for that service.