Four Surreal Days In 1994

May 30, 2011 17 Comments

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.

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Comments (17)

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  1. Hi Bret. I thank you and all the men and women who have served our Country in uniform. I am especially grateful to those who serve today, and honor the great sacrifices borne by them and their families. I wish you all the best on this Memorial Day.

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks, Christopher. I know most of the men and women I served with would tell you without hesitation that serving is one of the greatest honors they’ve ever had. We should be thankful that so many good men and women continue to make this choice. thanks, Bret

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  2. Jim Taggart says:

    Very moving Bret. I wish Canada had a Memorial Day. Our long weekend in May (one week before the U.S.) celebrates Queen Victoria. This is an anachronism. I looked up the history of Memorial Day to gain a better understanding of its history. Intriguing, especially how it has evolved from honoring the dead from the Civil War to men and women serving in the Armed Forces to now more broadly society’s deceased. We would be better in Canada to move on from the colonial mindset to having a national holiday with actual meaning. Memorial Day resonates with me far more than Victoria Day. Thanks again for sharing.

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jim! Bret

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  3. Bruce Lynn says:

    I think one of the reasons why military/national service is such an an asset to Leadership development is that it is the ultimate selfless servant role. As you yourself talked about in your piece on Servant Leadership (http://www.bretlsimmons.com/2011-04/do-you-work-for-a-servant-leader), you need to know how to ‘serve’ before you can ever have a clue about ‘leading’. Military/National service is a great apprenticeship for service.

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    It was better for me than I ever expected. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Thanks! Bret

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  4. Rachel Hall says:

    I was also at the base and home that day. My husband was deployed so I was alone with my children. I was directly across from the shooting. Our house was inside the gates of the base. A few of us watched this and at first thought it was an exercise, but the fear in the eyes of those running from the hospital showed the truth. We saw him shoot a few in the parking lot before he was killed by the bike cop. We were so grateful for it to be over. Then as you stated, the plane went down later that week.
    That week helped me to dedicate myself to volunteering and going back to school to better myself. It showed me that life is too precious to just go through the motions.
    I, too, was in the military and loved every hurry-up-and-wait moment.

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I too lived not far from the edge of the gate. We were probably near neighbors. Thanks for sharing. Bret

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  5. Christine L DiCesare says:

    Thank you so much for your service. I too remember that week. My ex husband was stationed at Fairchild at that time and all i remember from that week is sadness. It was a tough week for “us” all. 4 days I will never forget!

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for sharing. Bret

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  6. Amy says:

    I lived ( stationed with husband ) at FAB during this period as well.
    Thanks for the recollection ands accountings form human spirit.

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  7. LeDeane Stewart says:

    I too was living in the area at that time. I worked in the Mental Health Clinic/Family Advocacy side and was there that day. It was a very nice day until about 3:05 pm when I heard the first shot. Dr Brigham was my second level and Dr London was the psychologist. Good, good men and human beings with great families. When the plane went down I was in the hospital parking lot chatting with a couple of people. We had been to Dr Brigham’s memorial that morning and were planning to attend Dr London’s that afternoon. We were watching the B-52 practice; then we saw the smoke and we knew it was not a fire drill. We took off for the ER to help with the recall though fortunately it wasn’t necessary and only one person came in for smoke inhalation. We missed most of Dr London’s memorial. It was indeed hell week at Fairchild.

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, LeDeane. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and adding these important details. Thanks, Bret

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  8. Amy says:

    This moment in time seemed all but forgotten.
    Luckily I do not believe our children remember
    ( emotionally ) the events. Hearing LeDeane’s and Christine reveal the I intensity and dismay ( sudden loss ) indeed brings the sensations of that day or shall I say days. I had a friend Susan Franklin that lived in the neighborhood across the hospital. We could see the bike still stationary following the events of the day.
    I recall my husband was out processing that day.
    The minute he walked into our quarters the phone rang.
    It was an actual person ( not a recording ) telling all residents to
    go inside their quarters. I barely responded when my husband went running down the road to get our kids from a friends house. My husband came home with the anticipation of heading to the hospital, with the boys as part of out processing. They would have been in the immunization clinic at the time.
    This is an area that was part of the pathway to my understanding.
    It is haunting. Helicopters could be heard. The search for more than one shooter,
    Due to the rapid movement of his actions. The hours that went by, so it seems.
    However our experience is mute compared to those that were in the path.
    One of the parents of our children’s playmates worked as a PA(?)
    At the clinic. If I recall a bullet entered her office area.
    LeDeane I wonder if that was you.
    It is a shame I can not recall all the names.
    With the crash following so close in time it was indeed an intense period and a feeling of such sadness. It seemed like everyone felt it no matter what degree of closeness you were.
    People so not recall Fairchild… But it was the beginning of many to come.
    I looked into your tactics as a young airman Brett and was impressed with the training and education you took upon yourself to be prepared for the type of skill not even known you would have to utilize.
    My husband is a retired special ops …
    And now works with DHS. I appreciate
    ( as does he ) your training you made sure you had.
    Meaning, we respect and give thanks to you.

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Amy! Bret

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  9. LeDeane Stewart says:

    Hi Amy, no that was not my office he shot into. He did take a shot at me but he missed. That was before he went to the main hospital. Mental Health was in the Annex and that is where he started. He was about 40 feet from me so to say I was lucky is an understatement. The gunman did try to get into the immunization clinic but a SSgt who was in the clinic at the time prevented it. If I recall correctly the SSgt received a Bronze Star for his actions that day. We were so lucky Andy Brown got to the hospital so quickly and was a crack shot.

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Amazing. The detail you share adds so much value to this post. Appreciate you responding to Amy. Bret

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