Troy University—one year ago. It’s raining hard. The bleachers in Sartain Hall Gymnasium are filling with people.
Outside the gym: a Haynes Life Flight helicopter parked on the pavement. There are fire trucks, police cruisers, and five-hundred acres of ambulances.
They’ve come from Coffee, Pike, Covington, Dale, Elmore, and Montgomery County. They’re here to honor their own.
On the free-throw line are three caskets draped in American flags. Most in attendance wear EMS blues, flight suits, and class-A uniforms. Many are on-call.
There’s an audio recording playing on the sound system. It fills the room with the last radio transmission for Haynes Life Flight 2—which crashed eighty miles south of Montgomery, days earlier.
If there are dry eyes in the county, they aren’t living right.
The accident happened during the wee hours of Saturday. The helipad crew at Troy Regional Medical Center was having a quiet night.
Then, a call from dispatch. A single-vehicle accident on County Road 606. Pilot Chad Hammond checked the weather. There was a stiff fog rolling in.
He made a judgment call, then radioed back, saying something like: “Copy that, dispatch, we’ll take it from here.”
The three-person crew loaded supplies, working together like a symphony. First responders are a family. They log twenty-four-hour shifts together, laugh together, cook together, they get on each other’s nerves.
That night, their bird clipped along the Coffee County fog searching for wreckage. They found it. They touched down, loaded the critical patient—Chad probably helped with the stretcher.
“Chad was a helluva a pilot,” says one first-responder. “Lotta pilots don’t help load patients, but he did.”
And it would be his last time.
The funeral is interrupted.
A radio sounds in the back row. It’s loud. A few fire-medics slip out the door. Sirens blare. It’s a noise everyone in this room often hears in their sleep.
When service concludes, a bugle plays “Taps.” Flags get folded. Caskets get loaded by those who’ve lifted one too many stretchers in their time. Emergency vehicles rumble to life.
“Should’ve seen them lights,” says one man. “Highway Two-Thirty-One was nothing but red, yellow, and blue when they came into Troy. Never seen lights like that.”
One departing ambulance carries a casket. It gets a full police escort. Miles of highway are lined with fire trucks, peace officers, EMT’s, and civilians who pay respect.
Highway overpasses have flags hanging from them. There are salutes from children, bowed heads from men and women wearing badges and portable radios.
Chad, Stasi, and Jason are gone.
They died heroes. Public servants who lived for something. Something big. They are parents, duck hunters, churchgoers, travelers, and good ole boys. They are first responders. They are saints. But more than that…
They are American.
And they make me so proud it hurts.