In the shadow of 88201

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- I’ve been in the Air Force almost 10 years now and if you are like me, you keep and collect the special objects that have followed you around the service. For me it is the flag I commissioned under, the coins I collected from various commands, and the photos of friends and missions. They are a physical reminder of the past, the good parts and the hard ones.

Similar to our connection with flags and coins, we have a special relationship with our flying machines in the Air Force. We paint our names and units on the sides and we imbue them with the legacies of our past.

In addition, there is a tail number that always gives me pause, and causes me to stop and reflect on a key moment in my life. I’ll never forget the first ride I took on a C-17 Globemaster III from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., tail number 88201 in January of 2014.

Just before takeoff, we held a fallen hero ceremony on the ramp in Bagram, Afghanistan. Capt. David Lyon, my teammate and wingman on that deployment, had been killed along with two others by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive in Kabul a few days after Christmas. Eight of us carried our friend onto the ramp of 88201.

Lyon was the best among us. Before he was killed, Dave was in charge of training a unit of Afghan commandoes to carry out convoys throughout Afghanistan. He was the type of person you wanted to have as a leader and a teammate, especially for a warzone mission like that.

During his time at the Air Force Academy, he was a renowned athlete and brought the same drive, talent and excellence to the battlefield in service of the mission. Dave could draw the best out of all of us, either with a well-placed word of encouragement or leading by example. Everyone knew he cared about the team and the success of the mission, and Dave was always out front as every great leader should be.

I will never forget how cold it was in the shadow of 88201 as we got ready to leave Bagram, how grey it was when we landed in Dover, or how easily it could have been me taking that last ride home. Like many who lose a teammate in combat, I will forever wonder why it was him and not me. The darkest moments of my life were in the cargo bay of 88201 taking Capt. Lyon home. He was a true hero.

I’ve taken a few other rides on tail 88201 and seen it around in my travels since that first flight. That same bird was my freedom flight out of theater a few months after Dave was killed and it took me back to Afghanistan on another tour not long ago. Somehow that jet always seems to find me.

No matter what though, that airplane reminds me of my friend. It reminds me of the sacrifice he made and how well he lived all the way to the end. It reminds me to put my heart into my work and make it count for my teammates the way he did.

On Dave’s headstone at the Air Force Academy the inscription reads, “No Greater Love.”

He lived it. So if you see tail 88201 in your travels, think of Dave and remember to make it count.