On Memorial Day, remembering those who died in service, but not in combat

iStock/Thinkstock
iStock/Thinkstock

(NEW YORK) — Thomas Bailey and Karen Bushell have never met, but their families have eerily similar stories to tell.

On August 16, 2017, Thomas was informed that his daughter 1st Lt. Kathryn Bailey, 26, was missing; her Army Black Hawk helicopter had crashed into the ocean off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii.

Six days later, Karen received that same devastating word. Her son, Electronics Technician Petty Officer First Class Kevin Bushell, 26, was also missing. His Navy destroyer, the USS McCain, had collided with a merchant ship off the coast of Singapore.

Kathryn and Kevin were not in war zones when they died, but were conducting routine training missions so that they could be prepared for any situation in which the U.S. military might call upon their service.

Since last Memorial Day, about 75 service members from across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps have lost their lives in noncombat-related incidents. By comparison, since June of last year, 14 service members were killed in combat-related incidents in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Thomas and Karen had not feared they would lose their child in the way that they did. Now they say the sacrifice of service members like Kathryn and Kevin is just as important to remember this Memorial Day as any overseas combat death.

Before the crash: 1st Lt. Kathryn Bailey

Kathryn Michelle Bailey was born on August 7, 1991, to Thomas Bailey and Virginia Koch, who both served in the Army for a number of years. Kathryn spent most of her life in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

“She was an Army brat,” her father told ABC News in an interview in Newport News, Virginia last week.

“She was a very inquisitive girl, a very smart girl, and very stubborn but very loyal,” he added.

“She just kept you on your toes,” her sister said. “You didn’t know what she was going to say, what she as going to do. She was just the life of the room.”

Despite two parents who served in the Army, Kathryn’s family said it was never her plan to join the military. Instead, Kathryn followed her sister to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, earning a bachelor’s degree in European studies and art history. Then, she went to London’s Kingston University for a master’s degree in museum studies.

But it was during that time in England that her father said she became “ferociously patriotic.” Kathryn would visit her father — then retired from the Army and divorced — at his U.S. government job in Saudi Arabia. She also traveled through Europe, visiting historic sites from World War II.

“After that is pretty much when she decided she wanted to join the Army,” he said. “She called me up one day and said, ‘Dad, I want to be like you. I want to join the Army and be a helicopter pilot.’”

Her sister said she had mixed feelings upon learning of Kathryn’s decision.

“I actually kind of got mad at her,” she said.

“We’re in the middle of all this stuff going on the in the Middle East, and it’s the last thing I wanted for her,” she added. “Not that I don’t admire it, but when it’s your sister, it’s scary.”

Looking back, she said she could see why her sister was drawn to the Army — how Kathryn liked the structure and sense of community that she saw it gave to her parents.

Soon, Kathryn was speaking with recruiters and training to pass the physical fitness tests that she knew lay ahead.

“That’s when I knew she was serious about it,” her sister said, laughing. “And then after that it was just, you know, you get over the initial fear of hearing it and then you’re just proud.”

“I couldn’t brag enough about her, especially as she started getting up and flying, and she was always so excited about it,” Jessica said.

Her father and sister never seemed to fear for Kathryn’s safety even after she graduated from flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama and headed off to become a platoon leader in the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade at Wheeler Army Airfield in Hawaii.

“I never thought that anything would happen until she went overseas,” her sister said. “So something like what happened never even crossed my mind.”

Before the crash: Electronics Technician Petty Officer First Class Kevin Bushell

Growing up, Kevin loved animals and would bring home anything that he came across: snapping turtles, tadpoles, frogs, snakes, roosters, ducks and hermit crabs.

“He was sweet,” his mother said during an interview at their home last week. “He was a good soul from the time he was born.”

Kevin’s sister Sarah Bushell remembered looking up to her brother, even though she was the older sibling.

“He could let anything and everything just roll off of his back,” she said. “And I just thought that was such an amazing thing that nothing would ever get him down.”

As high school graduation neared, Kevin surprised the entire family with a declaration that he wanted to join the Navy, his mother told ABC News.

“We were sitting at a family dinner, and he said that he wanted to join, and I said, ‘Absolutely not. I don’t want you to. The world is too crazy.’”

“He wanted to travel,” she added. “He just had a drive to leave Gaithersburg and see the world. And he was able to do that with the Navy.”

Kevin was persistent, meeting with a recruiter and eventually heading to Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois for training.

“Once he made the commitment, and I knew that he was going to go forward with this, we were all behind him, all supportive of him,” his mother said.

Kevin’s oldest sister, Ashlee Day, spoke about visiting Kevin at Great Lakes for his graduation.

“We were blown away by his transformation in that short amount of time,” she said. “We said goodbye to him, and he was a free spirit. And when we saw him at graduation, he was a man on a mission. He knew what he wanted to do in his life. It was amazing to see the Navy gave him purpose.”

Kevin met his wife, Jenny, while on his first duty station in Rota, Spain. His service in the Navy would take him throughout Europe before returning to San Diego for additional school, and then on to Japan.

“I remember when he went to the DMZ [Korean Demilitarized Zone], he thought it was the coolest place in the world,” his mother said.

“He loved it,” she added. “He loved every bit of seeing the world and experiencing new things.”

When Kevin was home from deployments, he would swap stories with Shane, his mother’s wife, about her 12 years in the Navy.

In June, the destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship 12 miles off the Japanese coastline. His mother immediately messaged Kevin, who assured her not to worry.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry — that should have never happened. It would never happen again. And I’m safe.  I’m on the safest place I could possibly be.’”

After the crash: 1st Lt. Kathryn Bailey

At 8 o’clock in the morning on August 16, 2017, Thomas received a phone call from Kathryn’s acting battalion commander that she was missing. Her UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter had gone down the night before during a training mission off of Oahu, Hawaii, and the Army was looking for five soldiers on board.

It was Kathryn’s last flight where she was required to be paired with an instructor pilot.

“I know they were a quarter — about 0.4 miles — off the coast, and I know they had night vision goggles, and it was zero illumination,” her father said.

Her sister Jessica, an occupational therapist, was with a patient when her dad tried to call with the news. Minutes later, they finally connected.

“I was in disbelief because I was just talking to her the night before, you know, I said goodnight,” she said.

For the next three weeks, the Army began providing the Bailey family updates in their search for Kathryn. At first, the updates came every six hours, but then they dwindled down to 12 hours, and — finally — once per day.

Immediate family gathered in Kathryn’s mother’s home in North Carolina.

“I had hope for about the first five days because hers was one of the helmets that was recovered, and it had no damage to the helmet,” her father said. “It was a survivable helmet. So, about the first five days, I thought, ‘Hey, she was out there. I thought she was floating.’”

“I didn’t believe it until they showed up at our house to tell us in uniform,” her sister Jessica said. “Because for me, it was impossible.”

Now the family is living through their first year without Kathryn.

“To me, it’s sort of like some days I say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to tell Kathryn about this.’ So I get ready to text her and then realize,” her dad said. “Every time I see a helicopter flying overhead, it makes me think of her too, but she’s still with us. She’s still with us in spirit.”

Kathryn was going to be her sister’s maid of honor in Jessica’s wedding — scheduled for two weeks after the crash. The wedding was pushed back to December, and one chair was left empty in honor of Kathryn.

Her sister has been organizing runs and fundraisers in honor of Kathryn, including an event this fall in which proceeds will go to the Army Aviation Association that helped their family after the crash.

“I think that’s how I’m channeling how I’m feeling is just doing everything I can to make sure people know about her,” Jessica said.

For her, part of the fear is that Kathryn won’t be remembered in the same way because her death did not occur in combat.

“I don’t want anyone to diminish what she gave because you do hear about it on the news all the time about these soldiers overseas,” she said.

“And yes, they gave. But if you don’t go through these trainings, you can never get over there,” Jessica said. “I just don’t want anyone to hear that it happened back home and it wasn’t important.”

Kathryn’s dad also fears that Americans aren’t aware of just how many training accidents occur each year.

“Personally, I didn’t think it would happen to us,” he said. “It never happens to you. Well, it did happen to us — and it is. It just doesn’t happen in combat. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that.”

The family takes solace in knowing that Kathryn did so much in her short amount of time.

“She really makes us step back and think ‘What have I done with my life?’ kind of thing,” her sister said. “She makes you want to take advantage of every day you have.”

After the crash: Electronics Technician Petty Officer First Class Kevin Bushell

On Sunday, Aug. 21, 2017, Karen Bushell received a text message from her cousin that the USS McCain was involved in an accident. She called her son’s wife, who wasn’t yet aware of the collision, and then called her children.

“We just went to bed that night just hoping that we always knew Kevin was lucky,” Bushell said. “Kevin was so lucky in so many ways that we knew he would be okay.”

But the next morning, a Naval officer was outside of their home, knocking.

“I remember just shaking,” she said. “And that’s when they told us that he was one of the missing.”

The Bushells’ extended family came to their home to sit in the living room and wait for news of Kevin.

“Our house was very full with a lot of love and support,” Karen said.

It would be a full week before they received the official word that Kevin was one of 10 deceased sailors — his body trapped inside the ship as the compartment where he was sleeping that night flooded after the collision.

He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in October.

“He wanted to make a career of the Navy,” his mother said. “And I know he would have done well. I know he would have.”

“We wouldn’t have gotten to see the wonderful person he grew up to be if it hadn’t been for the Navy and him following his dreams,” his sister Ashlee said. “So I think we’re all grateful for that. We also miss him terribly. You don’t come across someone like Kevin very often.”

The night of the interview with ABC News, the Bushell family returned to Gaithersburg High School, where a scholarship established by the family and Kevin’s Navy friends was awarded to a student in his name.

It’s one small way that they will keep his memory alive.

“I know that we didn’t get to have Kevin for as long as we would have liked, but I really tried to stay grateful for the time that I did have with him,” his sister Sarah said. “In the short 26 years that he lived, I know that he lived more in those 26 years than some people do in a lifetime.”

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Share:
Comments