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The Blue Line: Remembering a Fallen Airman

By USAF RESERVE CAPT ANDRE BOWSER, 439th Mission Support Squadron, Westover Air Reserve Base

In Air Force Officer Training School (OTS), you are called an OT for Officer Trainee. Although he was OT G. back then to me, he would one day move up to become Capt G. He was a technical sergeant in the active duty Air Force before his ascension into the officer ranks.

OT G. earned his spot, just like me, by busting his hump as a former enlisted Airman.

Back in 2010, I knew OT G. from seeing him around at OTS. He was formerly part of the enlisted crew as an aircraft worker bee, but soon he would have his dream job of flying.

I saw a picture of OT G. years later on a popular social media site. He was posing as freshly commissioned Second Lieutenant G. I wondered why he would post such an old photo, so I scrolled down to read the cursory information below the image. It turned out to be a memorial post. Links to news reports detailed how Capt G. had crashed his aircraft in Afghanistan, killing everyone on board, as well as personnel in the aircraft control tower that his jet struck. I thought about our encounters years earlier, particularly the times he told me what he wanted to do with his life: fly.

When I discovered the social media post, I was months away from being inbound to the military’s mortuary at Dover AFB, DE for a six-month deployment. Part of me wished I could have been there for him, but then I wondered ‘What would I really have done? Stand behind the embalmers, or encourage the young Airmen who wrapped his badly damaged remains? Surely, I would have suffered some psychological scarring that would have stayed with me for the rest of my days had I been there to see someone I once knew—now fallen.’

By the time I was “present and accounted for” during morning musters at the military’s mortuary, Capt G. had long been returned to his family. I think the average turnaround time from the Dignified Transfer on the flightline to presenting human remains to the family—dressed and pressed in a uniform, or wrapped—at a funeral home in the decedents’ hometown is just under two weeks. But many factors come into play that can delay the process of us caring for the appearance and seeing to the return of the former service member’s remains.

I eventually learned the sad truth of how and why my classmate crashed, but that would come much later in the form of an official Air Force accident report distributed widely through military and media channels. The report would not be flattering, particularly of an Air Force pilot shortcut that ended up killing people. The Air Force technically was not at fault. The unsafe practice was a shortcut during pre-flight checks and preparations, and the report said it cost my former OTS classmate his life. The details do not really matter at this point because the outcome is immutable. I will never talk to OT G. again (or Capt G., as he became later). All that matters is if we fall and can still get up, we do it!

A memory from our time at OTS came to mind.

THE BLUE LINE GLOWED BEFORE ME — on the grassy, dewy ground. The sulfuric smell of eggs wafting in the pre-dawn breeze was the only distraction.

I was in a large crowd of other officer trainees, focused intently on that blue line before me, which separated so many of us from our dreams of becoming U.S. military officers. It was 5 a.m. OT G. was somewhere out on that same field, but I did not know him at the time. It was in our first week at Officer Training School on Maxwell AFB in good ole Alabama, and I was not yet used to the fine blue line that I would have to cross and then walk for the rest of my military career amidst the smell of rotten eggs on a morning in Montgomery. Before us on a massive lawn where we would graduate more than four months later, a blue cord lit up like a skinny neon snake.

“You men and women wish to become officers in the United States military—the strongest military in the world—but first you must step over the blue line.” Our commandant recited the words as if he had said them before, but with verve each time he would repeat them to new Officer Training School classes.

I wondered whether the Army initiated its officer trainees by having them step over a green line, or if the Marines had a red line, or the Navy a gray line.

As we took the big step in near unison, following the instructions of the senior military trainer far ahead of us up on stage, I tripped and stumbled a little. The thin blue line was all that was between me and my dream of becoming an officer—and it was all that separated my OTS classmate from his dream of flying.

I never had to work the case of a fallen service member I knew during my time at the military’s mortuary, although I came close with OT G. But during my deployment, I thought a lot about that blue line and my old OTS classmate. And I reminded myself that even if I would have fallen flat on my face long ago in front of all of those other officer trainees, I would have gotten right back up—simply because I could.

This story is dedicated to all fallen, for whom I now stand.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andre Bowser is a U.S. Air Force Reserve Captain stationed with the 439th Mission Support Squadron at Westover Air Reserve Base, ME. “The Blue Line: Remembering a Fallen Airman” is an excerpt of his unpublished memoir — Fallen Among U.S.

Contact him by e-mailing andre.bowser@us.af.mil or andrejbowser@gmail.com.