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Growth through pain—How the death of my friend made me a stronger more resilient Airman, woman, mother and friend

  • Published
  • By Capt. Eydie Sakura
  • 438th Air Expeditionary Wing
(This story is part of the "commentaries" section on AF.mil. These stories capture the experiences of Airmen from a first-person perspective. Capt. Eydie Sakura is on deployment from the 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs Office.)

I watched my friend die.

That was a day I will never forget. It changed me--I was no longer immune to grief during my one year deployment to Afghanistan.

Oct. 11, 2015, started like most other days, however, that day was different--I had the morning off with my friend and roommate, Maj. Phyllis Pelky. We ran errands together around the base and shared a long, leisurely breakfast. We chatted about high school days, college friends, Air Force mentors, the day's headlines in the Stars & Stripes--another easy conversation of one thing overlapping into another.

It was great to always have a close friend nearby. We shared our thoughts, frustrations, joys and stories of our families. We talked daily about our husbands and children, and our siblings and parents. As a grown woman, I find it difficult to form new, close friends, but with Phyllis, it was easy and natural. I actually said, "This was a great morning! We should do this more often!"

I had plans to take a helicopter to NATO Headquarters for Resolute Support, which was a five minute flight over the crowded streets of Kabul, with fellow Train, Advise, Assist Command-Air (TAAC-Air) colleagues later that morning. Phyllis was also going to HQ RS for meetings but was taking a late afternoon flight with her co-workers for an important meeting to discuss manpower and personnel for the Afghan Air Force.

My meetings were productive and successful. I prepared for a late afternoon flight back to Hamid Karzai International Airport and was sitting outside the passenger terminal patiently awaiting the helicopters to take me "home."

I heard the helos first, then saw them start their descent for landing. Then I heard them circle back around the compound--something was wrong. My colleague said, "I think it's going to crash!" I jumped up and saw one of the two helos pitch up and then back. My brain was spinning to comprehend what I had just seen. What just happened? Why did it happen? Who was on that helo?

That's when I knew, deep down I knew, it was Phyllis and my TAAC-Air teammates. I remained calm ... "no use in suspecting the worst without the facts and details," I thought. Regardless, I knew it was going to be a bad night for whomever was on that flight and everyone involved. In a matter of minutes, first responders and volunteers rushed litter patients onto the field where two Blackhawk helicopters were prepared for medical evacuations -- it was amazing and quite frankly, reassuring to see.

The training we accomplish as military personnel to support contingency and emergency situations really does pay off. I was impressed. Watching this flow of people come together to get personnel to a safe location was quite the sight. The events kept my mind from wandering to, "who was on that bird?"

When our flight "home" was cancelled, we moved on to find lodging and a place to store our gear. That's when I started to think "what if ..." Tears welled-up in my eyes and in a matter of seconds, I was weeping as I walked across the HQ RS compound. I knew it ... I just knew Phyllis was on that flight and I knew I'd never see her again.

My intuition was correct.

This tragic accident took the lives of five good people, and severely injured four others. It was a sad day for RS and the friends and family of the fallen.

The following day, I had the distinct honor of escorting Phyllis and our other fallen Airman, Master Sgt. Greg Kuhse, back to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, where their remains would be returned to their family members. Tech. Sgt. Nate Raab, Greg's good friend, accompanied me on this trip back to the U.S.

The Fallen Hero Ceremony at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, was tremendously emotional, yet our recognition of the fallen filled me with pride.

Everyone from a four-star general to an airman first class paid their respects and sent off our fallen comrades in a way only the Profession of Arms can. Before Nate and I departed, there was an overwhelming out-pouring of emotion, condolences, hugs and support. The military truly is a family. I am proud to wear the uniform and call these people my brothers and sisters in arms. It sounds hokey, but it's true--I've never felt so much love from so many people.

The Dignified Transfer of Remains ceremony at Dover AFB was just as touching. Air Force leadership from Washington, D.C., and from major commands across the U.S. paid their respects to the families of the fallen, but also to Nate and me.

We spent time with Greg and Phyllis' families. That was the most healing part of this tragic adventure. To be able to hug, cry, laugh and share stories of our loved ones was beyond therapeutic--it reassured us all that we were not alone.

The Air Force family is not just a cliché. It truly exists. The people are what makes an assignment or a deployment-- I've witnessed it. I've lived it. I know it. It's been just over a month since Phyllis' death and I think of her every day. I miss her laughter and our corny banter. The friendships here in Kabul and the support from people back home are what keeps me moving forward.

I have good days and I have bad days. We all do ... but mostly I just miss my friend. The chaplain is my neighbor and we talk a lot. The mental health professionals at the clinic check up on me to see how I'm doing. My supervisor takes time to chat with me over coffee. These people don't do this because it's a requirement. They do it because they care--they're a part of my family and I'm truly thankful for my life in the Air Force.

I see things differently now. I want to be a better person and make a difference in people's lives. Phyllis had that effect on me, so I want to do that for others. I care a little more, I laugh a little louder and I tell my friends and family how much I love them. I write more letters to my 10-year-old daughter and tell her how proud I am of her. Life is precious and I want her to internalize how much I care for her. I did that before, but now it's more real. It's a tangible by-product of my grief.

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