by John Rhea
I lost my son last month.
Our country - and the world - lost much more: a warrior who I believe would have been a mighty force for peace.
His name was Samuel George Rhea, and the Army was his life. At the time of his death he was studying advanced Arabic at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif., in preparation for an assignment as a military attaché at the American embassy in Amman, Jordan.
On Aug. 6 he and a fellow student, Air Force Capt. Buddy Manning, also an instrument-rated pilot, took off in Sam`s private twin-engine Grumman for a routine flight over the Big Sur country of California. They didn`t return.
The bodies were recovered from the wreckage the following day. An accident investigation has been initiated by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Sam was an excellent pilot. I know. I`ve flown with him. He flew - and maintained - his aircraft like he did everything else in his life: by the book. No shortcuts. No almost good enough. Do it right. Period.
That`s how he soldiered. He sought out every demanding assignment the Army would let him have. He was the kind of warrior that Agamemnon would have wanted at his side when he set out to kick some serious Trojan butt. As I write this tribute to him, I like to think of Sam looking over my shoulder and growling, "Yeah, dad, tell it like it is, but try to go easy on the poetry, will you?"
The Army knew, as I did, how bright he was and wanted him in Ordnance as a manager. So did I. Manage some big programs, get your ducks lined up, and become a CEO of a defense contractor when you retire, I advised him.
He wasn`t having any of that. He was going to be in a combat arm. The Army went along with him, reluctantly, and after graduation from Armor School in Fort Knox, Ky., he served as a platoon leader with the 3rd Armored Division (the illustrious Spearhead Division of World War II fame, which alas is no more) guarding the Fulda Gap in West Germany. I remember one of his proudest accomplishments was rescuing refugees from East Germany.
In the meantime, he got every ticket punched he could, starting with airborne (it`s pronounced airBORNE! by those who are) and Ranger school (known as "Armor appreciation school" among the tankers). He was following in the footsteps of his oldest sister, Christine, who was also airBORNE! as a military police officer stationed in West Germany, and since retired from the Army in Oregon.
We are, for the first time since the Civil War, an Army family again - and proud of it.
At his Airborne graduation at Fort Benning, Ga., probably in deference to what he thought might be my squeamishness, he asked if it would be all right with me if he had his commander give him his "bloody wings." Sure, I said, but it wasn`t all right. I wish now even more that I had spoken up.
He was in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell, and he and his youngest sister, Patricia, on a visit to Europe helped to tear it down. They sent me a piece, which I still treasure. In 1991 his time was about up before he had to take a desk job when he got help from an unexpected source: Saddam Hussein.
When I first heard of Iraq`s invasion of Kuwait I knew that Sam would be going and I frantically called him that night in Germany. We talked for at least an hour, and Sam very calmly laid out his scenario: first fry their electronics and knock out their command and control, then achieve air supremacy, finally seize the territory of a demoralized foe. He was perfectly willing to let the Air Force and Navy grab the glory. He said the Army would be happy to accept the surrender flags and stage the victory parade.
Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf stuck remarkably close to Sam`s script, but Sam was a little busier than he expected. The 3rd Armored tangled with Saddam`s elite unit, the Republican Guards, and several of Sam`s buddies were killed. Nonetheless, these modern-day heroes kicked some serious Iraqi butt not far from where Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ulysses had their triumphs.
Sam didn`t get a scratch, and, best of all, he escaped a desk job. The Army cuts its heroes some slack, and Sam got what he wanted most of all: Special Forces. After graduation from Fort Bragg, N.C., he was assigned to the Alpha Team, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Campbell, Ky. - a unit that traces its roots back to the famed "Delta Force" that formed in the early 1980s in the wake of a failed military attempt to rescue American hostages held in Iran.
His "year on the beach" in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, as he described it, was a big plus. He knew what worked and what didn`t. He had to. He was responsible for other men`s lives.
He was The Customer for the readers of this magazine, their ultimate reason for existence - and ours at Military & Aerospace Electronics. We very properly concern ourselves with the technologies and the acquisition process, because that`s our job, but we need to remind ourselves periodically that customers like Sam are in a life-and-death business, and that "almost good enough" simply isn`t.
Sam couldn`t have cared less about who made the equipment or what the technology was, but it damn well better work - every time. He loved the Global Positioning System, and the A-10 Thunderbolt close-air-support jet - affectionately known as the Warthog - became his favorite airplane (after his own). When Sam was in a bar with other military personnel, the Warthog pilots didn`t pay for drinks. He was pointedly unhappy about the operational reliability of the C-141 transport jet and had some other negative thoughts about the logistics system of the time.
We spent many hours discussing the singular role of Special Forces during his all-too-brief visits home. I had the romantic notion that they were a throwback to the knights of old who engaged only other warriors and left the civilians alone. Sam wasn`t big on romantic notions, but he agreed that Special Forces had a unique mission: to prevent wars.
If you accept the central thesis of Clausewitz`s On War that war is diplomacy by other means, then it logically follows that preventing wars is preferable to fighting them. I quoted to Sam the passage from the Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu that wherever there has been warfare only brambles grow. He agreed and pointed out that the only way you can prevent wars is always to be prepared to fight them.
Last year he spent more than 200 days in Africa training the special forces of Egypt and other African countries - while his new bride waited at home. In his last phone call to me from Monterey he told me he was shifting his career to diplomacy. He had "seen the elephant" in the Persian Gulf, he had directed Special Forces missions, and now he figured it was time for him to get into the business of preventing wars. He would begin as a Foreign Area Officer.
Unlike most fathers, who want their sons to become President of the United States, ever since he was a second lieutenant I thought he would eventually be Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State, or preferably both, like General George Catlett Marshall, whom I regarded as the model for Sam. I`m convinced he would have made a great one.
In my last e-mail message to him, on July 17, I wrote, in part: "Sam: congratulations on one of your guys [Gen. Henry "Hugh" Shelton, commander-in-chief of Special Operations] being named chairman of the joint chiefs. Let that be an inspiration to you. I`d still like to live to see stars on your shoulders." In prior conversations on that subject he patiently explained to me that promotions weren`t all that fast in Special Forces, but that`s not why people were there.
Even when he was in high school he knew what he was going to do. He was going to be a soldier and he was going to take charge. His passion was Civil War reenactments. I`ve seen him at Manassas. I saw him lead a charge at New Market. He was a member of a Tennessee regiment, which we agreed was a little incongruous since one of his namesakes was his great-great grandfather George Washington Rhea, a Union army private from Clarion, Pa., who spent most of the Civil War in the Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, Ga., and was the last member of our family to fire a shot in anger until Desert Storm.
Sam went off to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., to get his degree and his commission, which he did in 1987, but he couldn`t wait to get started. He began as an enlisted man in the Army Reserve and earned most of his college costs. He did it his way from beginning to end.
Sam was the somber type who took great pride in always being squared away, but over time he developed a wry sense of humor, particularly after he married Michelle Fogarty, a bubbly Southern belle from Louisville, Ky., who did much to lighten him up. The unofficial motto of Special Forces, he said with his usual engaging grin, was: "Go to exotic countries. Meet interesting people. Kill them." They were married July 8, 1995. They saw a lot of the world in just two years.
He lived for danger, and she reconciled herself to that. He used to joke that he commuted to work via parachute. He frequently took off in Air Force cargo aircraft, he said, but he rarely landed in them. While they were stationed in Monterey, Michelle and Sam visited his sister Nancie and her husband, Steve, in Hawaii, and Sam got hooked on scuba diving. When he got back he started making deep dives in the Pacific. Then he thought he`d join the local Civil Air Patrol for another after-hours activity, but this time his bride put her foot down. Good for her.
In the hours of mind-numbing uncertainty after Sam`s plane was reported missing, some of the most consoling words came from my good friend Neil Connor in Woodstock, Va. Neil had been a Marine Corps officer during the worst days of the Vietnam War and he was intimately familiar with death. Soldiers like Sam, the take-charge guys, never die, he told me. Their spirit lives on in their colleagues who remember them.
In the years to come I expect Sam`s spirit to pervade Special Forces units among those who knew him. "How would Sam have conducted this mission?" "I know Sam would have insisted on better air support." "Sam would have figured out a better way, but we`re going to get the job done anyhow."
Theodore Roosevelt is credited with the metaphor of the night sky as a blanket between earth and the light of heaven. As souls depart this life they punch a hole in the blanket, the greater their accomplishments the bigger the hole and therefore the larger the resulting star. Samuel George Rhea punched a big hole in that blanket, and his star is there for all to see and be inspired by.
As I write this, we`re still making funeral arrangements. Sam`s wish, as he told Michelle, was to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors, including a bagpiper. I am hoping for some of his favorites, "Amazing Grace," "Road to the Isles," and "Scotland the Brave." At this time, it`s scheduled for Aug. 21, and it will be done Sam`s way, by the book.
Samuel George Rhea was born Aug. 30, 1965, in the Washington Hospital Center in Northwest Washington, D.C. As you read this he lies in Arlington Cemetery five miles away across the Potomac after a worldwide odyssey of his own, but that`s not the real Samuel George Rhea. That`s merely his shade in the Valhalla with the other fallen warriors. His essential spirit lives on in my heart and the hearts of all those who knew him and loved him.