The hardest job I've ever had could have been prevented

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Tracy Smiedendorf
  • 62nd Maintenance Group commander
I can still remember the events years later as if it happened yesterday. It was a pleasant summer evening and my family and I had just returned from my son's baseball game. We were getting ready to enjoy some dessert when I received a phone call from the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Military Personnel Flight. I was informed that I had one hour to report to the Military Personnel Flight in service dress and lead a casualty notification team. 

Additionally, I was told the fatality wasn't in my squadron or from the base. The deceased Airman was stationed in Germany and his next of kin lived in Montana. Our base was the closest Air Force installation to their home. I was out the door,  wearing my blues. 

I arrived at the MPF a few minutes later and began getting instructions on who would be on the team, where this town was located, what to say and do when we got there and what not to say. Needless to say, I was apprehensive about the duty I was being given. As a commander I had to do some unpleasant things, but this was going to be the hardest job I ever had to do. 

The other notification team members to join me were a chaplain and a nurse. We drove four hours across three states and arrived at 2 a.m. My heart was pounding fast as I entered the residence and then read the statement: "On behalf of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, I regret to inform you of the death of your son." The emotion and grief they felt at that moment has stayed with me to this day. There wasn't a more somber task than what I had just carried out and I vowed to use this tragic event as a teaching lesson for those troops I command. 

That particular Airman died because he fell asleep at the wheel of his car and drove into oncoming traffic. He was coming home from an extended weekend visit to France and had not given himself proper rest. His failure to do the safe and proper thing not only took his life, but it caused tremendous pain and suffering for his family, friends and fellow Airmen. The consequences of your actions are not yours alone. They can and will effect others and you need to think about that each day as you go about your activities. 

The Air Force goes to great measures to ensure your safety on and off the job because you are a valuable member of the Air Force team. So the next time you hear someone giving a safety briefing or telling you how to wear protective equipment, imagine someone notifying your next of kin that you are dead because of your failure to do the "safety" thing. Hopefully, that will spur you into doing things correctly, so that no one else has to go do the hardest job I ever had to do in the Air Force.