Friday, May 31, 2013

Behind the lens: Marine leaves lasting impact

Commentary by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Rau
460th Space Wing Public Affairs

5/30/2013 - BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (AFNS) -- I had never met him. I had never seen him. I didn't even know his name before that day.

But then I stood on the flightline, staring at a black coffin draped in the Stars and Stripes. It didn't matter whether or not I knew this Marine, because I could feel his impact.

Members of the base and local community showed up in force for this dignified transfer. A full formation of Marines divided the hearse from the series of cars that lined the aircraft hangar doors, with an honor guard ready to receive their fallen brother after he arrived by plane. More than 20 K-9 handlers and their dogs filled the flightline in respect of one of their own because the plane was not only carrying an American warrior, but also the remains of his military working dog partner.

So there I was, in full service dress, behind the camera's lens, capturing the final journey of this Marine for his family. I had never been in this position before, and it was a little eerie. As a photojournalist, I always try to get excited about putting out the best possible product; but as I stood next to the hearse, still close enough to hear the quiet crying of his family, excitement seemed out of place.

The six-man honor guard raised their white-gloved hands in a silent salute to the K-9 handler before the door to the black hearse closed. The Marine's wife stared at the vehicle through dark sunglasses, the tear streaks still on her cheek. His brother stood stoically beside her in his place.

This Marine, who was unknown to me until then, had spoken to me. Not through words, but through actions. He made the greatest sacrifice for his country any service member can make. He made it even though he had a family. He made it even though he had a future.

All the days throughout my career I complained about it being too hot or there being a lot of work seemed insignificant. Frankly, I was embarrassed. I lost track of the big picture in those moments, and it was sad it took a hero to remind me of that.

The corporal's sacrifice reminded me of the important things. No matter what branch of service we are in, we are all in this fight together. We stand united against America's enemies and together in the aid of our allies.

His sacrifice also showed me how fragile life is for those who take the oath to serve our country. We sometimes see ourselves as invincible, but one day it could be me in that casket and my wife wearing black. Because I will deploy again; it's what I swore to when I joined the military.

As I watched the hearse pull away bathed by the lights of fire trucks and police vehicles, every available service member and civilian on the installation lined the road awaiting the corporal's final pass. I saw hundreds of base members, lined shoulder to shoulder, place their hands over their hearts or raise their arms and render a final salute.

And it hit me. This Marine not only impacted me, he had impacted all of us.

Following the footsteps of a life cut short

by Senior Airman Derek VanHorn
35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

5/28/2013 - MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- They shared the same name. They flew and fought the same types of Wild Weasel fighter jet missions. They looked alike and the family says they even displayed the same mannerisms. It's a fascinating tale of a father and son who lived the same life, complete with a sobering twist.

They never met.

Forty years ago, aptly named John Wayne Seuell was living a real life war movie, flying F-4D Phantoms over hostile Vietnamese jungles as an Air Force captain. It was almost noon on June 6, 1972, when his parental duty was severed by fate, only days away from welcoming his only child into the world.

Reports released from the Pentagon tell a mind-bending story of what are believed to be Seuell's final moments.

While on a combat air patrol mission northwest of Hanoi, Seuell was with Lt. Col. James Fowler and their F-4D was the lead aircraft in a flight of four. All aircraft arrived in the target area without incident, so far so good, until the sortie made its way back toward its base destination in Thailand. While approaching surface-to-air missile launching sites near heavily guarded Yen Bai Airfield in North Vietnam, the launch of an enemy missile was detected.

Although evasive maneuvers were initiated, it wasn't enough as the missile exploded below the tail section of Seuell's plane. The aircraft burst into flames, but did not disintegrate. No canopies or parachutes were seen. About 30 minutes later, flights in the area reported hearing two emergency signals, but no contact could be made.

Because the incident occurred deep in enemy territory, no organized search could be made. Both pilots held the status of missing in action for many years. The only things that remained of the crash site were questions.

Two months following the crash, John David Seuell was born, unaware of the irrecoverable tragedy surrounding him. At the time, it was impossible to know the parallels that would arise between he and his father. But being born into such a storied pedigree, the telltale signs were always there.

"I knew about the circumstances [of my father] growing up," said Seuell, now the deputy commander of the 35th Operations Group. "From the youngest age I always wanted to be a pilot. I was surrounded by it; I knew it was what I was going to do."

Seuell's bloodline is United States Air Force; he's never known anything else. To take it a step further, life leading up to his commission was essentially a formality - he was always going to fill his father's footsteps. It was just how closely, however, no one could have foreseen.

While his father's playground was dense, alien jungle, Seuell started in the sandbox. His first missions as an F-16 fighter pilot led him over Southern Iraq during Operation Southern Watch to fight the antagonistic presence of Saddam Hussein.

"It was an eye-opening experience," said Seuell, now an 18-year Air Force veteran. "It was really a gut check when you get up in the morning and plan to spend your day far, far away from anyone friendly."

It was decades later, and the only thing separating the father and son was time. They were always fighting the same fight.

At Misawa, the 35th Fighter Wing is home to the Wild Weasels - U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons that provide lethal suppression of enemy-air-defenses across the globe. A squadron that helps make up the 35 FW is the 13th Fighter Squadron, which was retained when the 432nd FW was reflagged by the 35 FW during a changeover in the fall of 1994. Colonel Seuell flew 13 FS aircraft in his primal flying days as a lieutenant and now still supervises the squadron in his current position.

While attending training in San Antonio in his early twenties, Seuell got his hands on an unclassified report about his father's last flight.

"It described the airplane [my father] was in, and painted on the side of the intake was a red '13' with a black panther, which is an indication that it was a 13 FS airplane," he said with a grin.

As the time passed, more and more details began to emerge. But one looming question remained; what exactly happened to his father?

Villagers from small towns near the crash site were interviewed, along with SAM site operators working that day. People who claimed to have visited the crash site shortly after still could provide no concrete answers.

It wasn't until 1995, in San Angelo, Texas, when Seuell was perusing through a bookstore and discovered a book titled "Inside Hanoi's Secret Archives," authored by Malcolm McConnell. Scrolling through the index, Seuell was taken back after seeing his father's name listed. Looking further, it even had his picture inside and definitively listed his father as killed in action.

It was that moment when Seuell finally received the answers to all the questions racing through his head over the years.

"For me personally, I have no doubt that this is my dad," Seuell said, pointing to the pictures he pulled from a 4-inch thick binder full of his father's heritage. "He was able to exit the aircraft ... but was unable to survive the ejection."

Having never been allowed the luxury of meeting his father, Seuell said the emotions surrounding his death were more prideful than anything else.

"I've always looked up to the sacrifice of my father, what he used it for and what he had given," he said. "He was always a role model and he made being a pilot more serious. I felt like I knew the consequences more clearly.

"There really is a more serious side of sacrifice and knowledge you have to be willing to give if required."

The more Seuell unearthed about his father's life and sacrifice, the more the legacy came bursting through the woodwork. John Wayne Seuell was elite company.

During one memorable flight on April 16 of 1972, Seuell was in a group of four fighter jets that recorded two MiG-21 kills that afternoon. On that flight, he flew alongside decorated Vietnam MiG killers Fred Olmstead and Jeffrey Feinstein.

Seuell doesn't have to go far to find the memories of that day. A few left turns and a couple stoplights away from his flight line office is the Misawa's Officer Club, where two red star plaques posted above the bar recognize the pilots' feats.

That mission, which has been widely documented and published across the world, is remembered as one of the more famous dogfights in Vietnam history. It's known as Basco Flight, now a staple call sign in the Wild Weasel lineage.

As an F-16 fighter pilot with ties to the same squadron his father flew with in his heyday, Seuell flies SEAD missions regularly with the Wild Weasels. And the call sign of the most recent mission he flew?

You guessed it -- Basco.

How could it have been anything else?

"That was pretty cool," Seuell reflected. "I grew up flying fighter jets, became a Wild Weasel pilot and train against the same threats that existed in Vietnam."

In 40 years, so much has changed. Yet, still, so much remains the same.

"In some ways it may be a bit poetic; I am trained to go after the things that killed my dad."