Fifteen years have passed since my friend Bartt Owens lost his life supporting Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in the Philippines. This and every Memorial Day I think of Bartt and remember how he is one of 2,346 American service members killed in action in OEF. I also remember how he was a loving family man, a sarcastic friend, and a guy who had dreams.
The last time I saw Bartt, he had just finished the Chicago Marathon. It was Sunday, Oct. 7, 2001, less than four weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, and the same day President George W. Bush addressed the nation on live television, announcing the beginning of OEF with military strikes in Afghanistan.
I was at the finish line at Grant Park, hopelessly searching for my wife among the nearly 40,000 runners, when a man with a shock of short red hair walked right in front of me. "Bartt!" I yelled. The red-headed man turned to me, and I saw his familiar face, covered with dried salt from 26.2 miles of sweat and with the look of someone also searching for a loved one amid the million spectators. "Ron!" he yelled back. "What are you doing here, man?" I said as we hugged. "Running a marathon, you idiot," Bartt responded with his signature sarcasm.
I had not seen Bartt since we had graduated from West Point seven years earlier. We were roommates our sophomore year, study mates in common classes, cleaning mates in preparing for room and uniform inspections, leadership mates as we took on roles in the chain of command, and overall sources of entertainment in an otherwise entertainment-free environment.
Bartt was a good roommate in all of these ways, and he especially excelled in the entertainment department. He had a wicked sense of humor — with doses of sarcasm, dryness, and wit, all with a sly smile that hinted at his irreverent good nature. Everything was fair game with Bartt, from a bad haircut to one's taste in music.
After our sophomore year, West Point moved all cadets to different companies to broaden networks. We were still in adjacent barracks, though, and I made it a point to stop by and visit with my old roommate every few weeks.
Seeing Bartt at Grant Park in Chicago and hearing his quick response to my question "What are you doing here?" brought an instant smile to my face. We hastily caught each other up with our lives. Bartt had become a helicopter pilot, married his high school sweetheart, and had two toddler daughters. He was still in the Army and was serving with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. These are the famous Night Stalkers, whose motto is summed up by four letters — NSDQ, meaning, Night Stalkers Don't Quit. Their job is to fly special operators on the most dangerous missions around the globe.
Bartt had come to Chicago to run the marathon for the same reason as my wife. He had hoped to post a fast enough time to qualify for the Boston Marathon and fulfill his dream of running in that marathon the following April. He was dejected that his finishing time was about 10 minutes too slow to qualify for Boston, but "there's always next year," he said. After about five minutes of catching up, Bartt said he needed to go look for his wife and daughters in the crowd of spectators. With one more hug, I said: "See you later."
A few short months after our meeting, a mutual friend called to inform me that Bartt Owens died when the helicopter he was flying crashed into the sea in the Philippines. Seven other soldiers and two airmen also perished before dawn Feb. 22, 2002.
When President Bush announced the beginning of OEF, he ended his speech with: "The battle is now joined on many fronts. We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail." One of the many battlefronts was against the Abu Sayyaf rebel group in the Philippines, which was an affiliate of al-Qaeda. Just before the crash, Bartt had flown American special operators and supplies from Zamboanga to nearby Basilan Island, where rebels held an American missionary couple and a Filipino nurse hostage.
On Memorial Day, we remember the sacrifices of the men and women who have lost their lives in uniform. For me, it is a day not only to contemplate the numbers of war dead, nor just names on monuments. It is a day to reflect on how fallen service members — like Bartt Owens — were also funny, complex, dreaming, and loving people.