One Degree of Separation in the Forever War
The tale of Reese and Yuri Hines, two brothers in two wars, suggests the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game needs a new name in the US military.
Canadian and American medics transport Reese Hines to the hospital after an IED detonated an arm's length away from his head. Reese doesn't remember being treated, but he knows he was conscious because of his grip on the stretcher. Photo: Hines Family
On April 9, 2011, Captain Jaymes Collin Uriah "Yuri" Hines drank a beer with a friend at a brewery in Bruges, Belgium, and tried desperately to relax.
Yuri was a Weapon Systems Officer on an F-15E, a backseater who dropped the bombs, and he was exhausted. Just back from a combat tour, he had been conducting airstrikes only two weeks before.
His brother Reese was deployed to Afghanistan, and something in his voice, the last time they had talked on the phone, still haunted him. Yuri would soon leave for US Air Force pilot training, to move to the front seat of a fighter jet and fulfill a boyhood dream. He was newly married, but had barely seen his bride. He was only 29, and the stress of so many significant life events in so short a period of time was taking its toll.
Yuri was relieved to finally just sit and have a drink. Then his phone rang. It was his mother. His mother never called.
"It's Reese, he's been hit," she sobbed. "They don't know if he's going to survive."
Yuri spoke to his mother for only a moment. Then he hung up, walked out of the Belgian brewery, got in his truck, and with no other planning or preparation, drove directly to Germany. If Reese lived, the Landstuhl military hospital would be his first stop out of the war zone. Yuri drove 110 miles per hour the entire way. It took him six hours on the autobahn, and he didn't arrive until after midnight.
All the next day, Yuri was beset by rumors. On Facebook someone said that Reese had died. It took time to prove that wasn't true, but the initial wrong report traveled fast, and many of Reese's family members only learned he was injured at all from this incorrect post. Yuri got, as he put it later, "pretty fucking pissed," so frustrated that he begged favors from every colonel he knew, ultimately discovering the phone number of the hospital room in Afghanistan that mostly likely held his brother.
Statistically they are not saving the lives of strangers, but of known quantities.
A doctor answered the phone. He sounded hesitant and suspicious. "I'm sorry, who is this?"
"Captain Hines. Reese Hines is my brother."
"I don't know if I can talk to you right now," said the hesitant voice. "I'm kinda in the middle of something. Can I call you back?"
"Sir," pleaded Yuri, "I'm in Germany. I just found out my brother got hit. Can you please tell me what the hell's going on?"
The voice took a deep breath. There was a muffling passing of the phone. A woman began speaking. "We're in the middle of surgery," she began, and then calmly explained every injury that Reese had endured.
"That's the exact opposite way of how notifications are supposed to happen," Yuri reflected later. "And I'm pretty sure I broke a million rules."
Reese finally arrived from Bagram the following day, on a massive KC-135 refueler that had been chartered just for him; he and the medical staff were the only passengers in the cavernous belly of the aircraft. Yuri talked his way onto the flight line, helped carry his brother off the plane and onto a bus that would take them to the hospital. Reese was strapped down, face and arms a mass of bandages. No one knew if he would live.
"What do I do?" Yuri begged of a doctor accompanying Reese. "I don't know what to do."
"He's your brother, just talk to him," the doctor said.
So Yuri did. He told Reese he was there and that he was going to make it. Reese was in a drug-induced coma, but Yuri swore his wounded brother turned his head toward his voice, and it was in that moment that the strain of the previous two weeks finally overcame him. Yuri put his head in his hands and cried so hard, so uncontrollably, that he shook until he couldn't breathe.
"They had to escort me off the bus, until I could be a person again," Yuri said.
Some now call it the Forever War, and every day that name grows more appropriate.
Soldiers are dying again in Iraq. President Obama extended the mission in Afghanistan through 2017 after the city of Kunduz fell to the Taliban in October. Leaked classified documents reveal a barely acknowledged drone war in Somalia and East Africa. Plus strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, direct action raids against ISIS leaders, a proxy war in Syria and al-Anbar. Between 1975 and 2000—in Grenada, Panama, the First Gulf War and Somalia—the United States fought a total of twelve days of conventional ground combat. Since October of 2001, it hasn't ceased.
This longest war in American history has created a warrior caste. Less than one percent of the US population, the "Other One Percent," served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly half of those veterans completed two or more tours, and 51,000 of them, a Spartan-esque subculture than would barely fill Yankee stadium, have deployed six or more times. The Delta operator who fell in Iraq in October was on his fourteenth tour.
Our professional military is staffed entirely by volunteers. Returning to combat this often is a choice, and our culture has turned to explanations from camaraderie to adrenaline to economics to explain this drive.
But this Veterans Day, it is worth considering another reason, unique to our current conflict: saving a life within a very small world. So small, in fact, that using small world theory, the math tells us that statistically they are not saving the lives of strangers, but of known quantities.
Over dozens of interviews with men and women about why they continue to volunteer to fight the Forever War, the only universal motivation I encountered was the desire to protect. To clear an improvised explosive device (IED) threatening a patrol, to helicopter in for a medical rescue, to patch up a wounded Marine, to drop a bomb to keep a platoon from being overrun. Surely, most rescuers must assume that the soldier they are helping—from another unit, another service—is a stranger; Joseph Campbell and Arthur Schopenhauer wrote volumes of essays about the mystical empathy present at such a moment of rescue.
But the science of modern social network research tells us something different about these lives that are saved. In previous American wars, soldiers bonded over a single definitive experience and went home. Today, these 51,000 veterans have spent years building an extensive social network in harm's way. When they go back to war, they know the soldiers in their new units as well as former comrades still fighting throughout the battlefield. In the modern US military, the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game needs a new name. Only one or two degrees separate these men and women.
This phenomenon is embodied in the tale of Reese and Yuri Hines, two brothers in two wars, and all of the ways coincidence and fate and loyalty and purpose bind together those very few soldiers who deploy to fight over and over and over again.
The brothers have a story. They call it "our story," and they will tell you that the story starts in Libya.
Maybe they're wrong. Maybe the story really starts when Reese walked into an Air Force recruiting office in October of 2000, aced the entrance exam, and on a whim chose to go into Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), the military's bomb squad. Or maybe it begins when their dad, an Air Force veteran and private pilot, took Yuri up in a little Cessna for his birthday and imparted the flying bug to his younger son. Or maybe the story begins even earlier, with their two grandfathers, both in World War II, one in the Navy in the Pacific, the other a flamethrower who cleared pillboxes across central Germany and, in Czechoslovakia, heard the last shot of the war.
Or maybe the brothers are right. Maybe it does begin in Libya, when Yuri was feared lost.
A little over two weeks before he met his wounded brother in Germany, Yuri was working at a computer in a secure vault at Lakenheath Air Base in England. He felt good. He was a rising star with a coveted slot to pilot training. Less than a year before he had deployed to Bagram, and had dropped so many on-target bombs in the infamous Korengal valley of eastern Afghanistan that he had earned the callsign "Frag." It gave him a lot of satisfaction to know that he was watching over the soldiers on the ground, that he was "the spear in the sky" and "thunder of God" that had their back, and he had developed an affinity with the radio controllers that called in the strikes. Once, one controller told him that "he slept better just knowing that we were on station, even if we weren't doing kinetic strikes, that if they could hear the sound of our engines, or the jet flying overhead, that the Army guys would actually sleep better that night."
That day in England, Yuri should have been studying tactics in the vault, but he was actually doing honeymoon research, distracted by the fact that his new wife, still home in Oklahoma, was finally coming to Europe in a few days.
But when the three F-15 squadron commanders then entered the vault, he knew something was wrong. They told everyone to go home, go on "crew rest," a process that optimally involves sleep. When he got home Yuri turned on the television instead, and saw wall-to-wall news coverage of the conflict in Libya. It was March 19, 2011, and later that night the Navy would began launching Tomahawk missiles against the Qaddafi regime.
The next day, Yuri returned to the vault to plan that evening's missions. On the second night of the campaign, Navy and Air Force aircraft, including F-15Es from Lakenheath, would hit an even wider variety of sites. Libya was not medieval Afghanistan, and Qaddafi still had a sophisticated air defense network, including radar sites integrated with surface-to-air missiles. When the squadron commander got up to address all the pilots and weapon systems officers in the mass briefing room, Yuri thought it felt like a movie, B-17s off to hit Nazi targets. A normally jovial guy, his commander instead was dead serious.
"Look to your left and right," he said. "There's a good chance one of these aircrews won't make it back tonight."
In Yuri's time in the Air Force, no one had ever talked like that before. That night, before he stepped to the jet, he called his wife to cancel their honeymoon; she was already at the Atlanta airport, waiting for the flight to England.
That night, combat-armed US aircraft—carrying live ordnance meant for live targets—flew over London and Paris for the first time since 1945. Yuri calibrated the infra-red radar of his sniper pod over the Seventh Arrondissement. "That's just shit you don't do every day," he reflected later. Their squadron commander was wrong, though; after dropping bombs in Libya every aircrew made it back that night, and they landed at Aviano Air Base in Italy.
At this same time, Reese was deployed to Combat Outpost Shoja, just west of Kandahar. Technical Sergeant Dan "Reese" Hines was an EOD team leader, responsible for clearing IEDs in a very dangerous corner of the country, but he was following international developments as well, and his thoughts were with Yuri.
The Hines brothers both describe their bond as one that transcends blood. "My brother is an absolute value, a positive one, a given," Yuri said later. "The sun will rise the next day and I have a brother, and he will be there." They define themselves in relation to the other, measure their ages off the other; at thirty-one, Reese was twenty months the elder, and both men were comfortable in his role as the big protective brother. So when American cable news showed footage of F-15Es landing in Aviano, Reese grew concerned. He noted the marking on the tails and could tell they were his brother's squadron. He told their parents that his brother was involved in the attack on Libya, but he guarded his words.
"We have an unspoken brotherly agreement that the information we tell each other doesn't go to family," Reese said later. "I was really vague talking with our parents."
The next morning, though, the brothers themselves talked on the phone, and freely. While Yuri confirmed that he was involved in Libya, mostly they discussed Reese and his latest combat tour. Reese said that he was nervous. A major operation was set to begin, as the Canadian military pulled out and the US Army took over control of his sector. The Canadian infantry was organizing one last sweep, and the fighting was expected to be fierce.
Yuri had never heard Reese express unease, and it unnerved him. "He's always acted the big brother, even when I out-ranked him," Yuri said later. Reese was always brash and self-assured, especially when describing the "crazy" missions he had completed in Iraq. Reese was on his fourth tour, but this was his first to Afghanistan, and now he sounded unsure. His unusual tone bothered Yuri. It would be their last conversation for weeks.
"There were a couple of times that asshole was on the brink of fucking dying"
That night, on March 21, Yuri and the rest of the F-15Es launched from Aviano, and this time his squadron commander's prediction proved true. In the middle of the bombing campaign Yuri lost a wingman over Benghazi. Initial reports said the plane was shot down, while a later investigation pointed to mechanical failure. At the time, though, all Reese knew was that when he woke up the next day, wreckage from an F-15E was all over Fox News and his brother wasn't answering his phone.
For a week, no one spoke to Yuri. He paced and didn't sleep. "Time really slowed down for me there," Yuri said. Reese and his parents and Yuri's wife were desperate for news that he was alive. Yuri was thinking of Reese, off on a big operation. The F-15E crew was rescued, but it took time, and the "comm blackout"—the military-imposed ban on communications of any type while casualty notifications are made to family of the killed, wounded, or missing—lasted for a week.
Eventually, Yuri's family agreed that no news must be good news, and in time Reese received a brief message confirming his brother was okay. But by the time Yuri was out of comm blackout, Reese had begun his large operation, and though they could have found a way to speak, in deference younger brother left older brother alone.
On the morning of April 9, Reese got on Facebook and made two posts before putting on his gear and going on his last mission.
He changed his status update to: "And so it begins, IEDs for FREE!" It was a reference to the looming government shutdown in Washington and the rumor that military pay would cease.
And he sent a message to Angie Capra, the widow of one of his best friends, Tony Capra. Both Reese and Tony were EOD techs, and the two had been stationed together in Florida, had bonded over beer and cigarettes and the trials of being young fathers. It was the three year anniversary of Tony's death, and Reese wanted Angie to know that he was thinking of her and the kids.
Technical Sergeant Anthony Capra died in Balad, a town north of Baghdad. On his 107th combat mission of that tour, while investigating the scene of a bombing, he was killed by a second hidden explosive device. He left behind Angie, five children, and eleven younger siblings. Like Reese, he was on his fourth deployment.
About 2.7 million men and women have served in the post-9/11 wars, in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf States, horn of Africa, and Syria. About 1.3 million have done multiple tours, and 223,000 have gone four or more times.
Never have so many soldiers done so many tours. But it is also true that America has relied on a core force the size of Fargo, North Dakota to fight the longest war in our nation's history.
Phillip Carter crunches these numbers for the Veterans Data Project at the Center for New American Security, a Washington think-tank. Using information provided by the Department of Defense's Contingency Tracking System, he has analyzed the demographics of this post-9/11 cohort with a granularity not before possible. More data is available electronically than ever before, and what Carter has found, this multi-tour phenomenon, is unprecedented.
The First Gulf War, Korean War, and First World War did not last long enough for veterans to fight, come home, and return. In World War II, units stayed for the duration of the campaign, and a soldier's tour generally ended when he was wounded or victory was declared. In the Civil War and Revolutionary War, men from a certain part of the country would all enlist together to form a unit, but then often disband collectively once their contracts were up; General Washington planned many of his engagements based upon when his army would disappear.
Other than the current one, the only American war that allowed a similar opportunity to go back for multiple tours was Vietnam. Comparing the two wars is illuminating; not only has our military vastly changed, but so has the data available to understand it.
For example, we don't know how many Vietnam veterans did multiple deployments.
Historians at New York University, West Point, the US Army War College, the RAND Corporation, and the National Archives confirmed that the data is unavailable. The DoD's Manpower Data Center provides only a broad overview of Vietnam casualties. If and when the discharge records of every Vietnam veteran are digitized and placed in a database, historians will be able to answer the question.
Professor Greg Daddis, a retired colonel from West Point and current director of Chapman University's War and Society Program, explained why we don't know. "To be frank," he said, "it wasn't important. There was a draft. If the Army wanted more soldiers in Vietnam, it would draft them, though there would be a political cost. In our current wars, it wasn't until 2005 or 2006 that the Army realized it was feeding on itself, that if it wanted more soldiers in Iraq, it would have to send men and women who had deployed before."
Some soldiers certainly did redeploy to Vietnam, but experts agree that the vast majority just tried to survive their one tour. In Dispatches, journalist Michael Herr's surreal account of the Vietnam War, two Marines discuss when they will return home. One has just agreed to stay in Vietnam for four more months, so he can be discharged from the Marine Corps sooner. The other Marine is incredulous.
"Four months?" he said. "Baby, four seconds in this whorehouse will get you greased."
No one knows how Reese Hines set off the bomb that should have killed him. Reese himself certainly doesn't; his memories of the event are segmented and fractured at best.
It was his second call of the morning, and in the midst of the major operation, a meticulous ballet of three Canadian infantry companies, two helicopter-led air assaults, armor in a blocking formation to the south, and trauma medical assets on stand-by. The Canadians found the device, said it was a pressure-plate tied to a yellow jug full of explosives, buried in the ground. It was in an area Reese had worked before; not three weeks prior, an informant claimed multiple bombs were in this area, and Reese had done an investigation on the detonation of a similar device that killed a Canadian soldier.
Now Reese was out of his truck, without his robot, without his bomb suit, carrying a metal detector and an explosive charge as he carefully approached the IED buried near a wall covered in grapevines.
Halfway down, Reese looked back at his team. He shrugged. "I guess this is the best thing we can do right now?" his look said. He laid down on his belly in front of the handle of the buried yellow jug, pulled out his knife, probed once or twice, pulled out his paint brush, and began to unearth the trigger with the care of a paleontologist excavating a new discovery.
Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Detonation. Five gallons of Ammonium Nitrate mixed with aluminum shavings and ball bearings exploded an arm's length away.
The hammer hit Reese's face first. The bones of his orbital eye sockets, upper and lower jaw, and base of his skull all fractured. His eardrums ruptured. A ball bearing shattered the right lens of his safety glasses and embedded in his eye. His helmet was thrown 90 feet behind him.
The blast rolled over the rest of his body next. His right hand liquefied. Frag entered the muscles of both arms, exited out the other side. Sand and dirt pock-marked his shoulders. The armor plate on his chest caught a ball-bearing meant for his heart. One lung collapsed. An eight-inch square chunk of his interior quadriceps muscle on his left leg was torn away, as if bitten by a shark.
The initial medevac call was "triple amputee, no vitals."
The second call was "quadruple amputee, with vitals."
It takes hope to activate the combat rescue system. Two Air Force helicopters, staged forward in anticipation of major casualties during the Canadian operation, launched from their temporary airfield. The special HH-60s bore seven souls each: Two pilots, two door-gunner engineers, and three elite para-rescuemen (PJs) charged with picking up the most-critically injured soldiers in the highest-threat situations.
The PJs landed less than eight minutes later. They gave Reese a field tracheotomy, a procedure to cut a breathing hole at the Adam's apple. They started IVs. They put on five tourniquets, one on each limb and a second on his right arm, since it was the most damaged. His right leg was fine, but it got a tourniquet anyway because no one could tell, his pants so splattered in blood.
Reese doesn't remember the rescue, but later, when he was in the hospital, he had dreams and hallucinations that he now thinks could be memories: Lying under the spinning blades of the rescue helicopter, feeling the cold rotorwash across his body. It is possible he has pieces of memories. He was surely conscious during the entire event. In a picture taken by a military photographer, Reese is seen carried on a litter, his chest bare, his head distended and covered in blood, his left gloved hand actively clenched in a death-grip on the stretcher's edge.
"I'm not very big into religion," Reese said later, "or following one certain path, but I definitely believe that I had a guardian angel that day. I'd like to believe Tony Capra was looking out for me."
Years before the brothers deployed, while he was still a student at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga and Reese was in EOD school in the panhandle of Florida, Yuri called his brother for advice. He was struggling in college, his grades dipping. September 11th was still very much on his mind, and he felt compelled to enter the military as quickly as possible. He was just going to drop out of college, he told Reese on the phone, enlist like his older brother. He was looking at the paperwork from the recruiter as they talked. Reese told him not to sign anything, and hung up. Hours later, at 4 o'clock in the morning, Reese knocked on Yuri's door.
"He yelled at me like a good big brother would and told me I was an idiot," Yuri remembered. Reese had driven all the way up from Florida to convince Yuri to stay in school, join the military as an officer. "How powerful 9/11 is for most people, that's how powerful Reese is in my life," Yuri said.
Now that force was dying in a hospital. Yuri thought of his brother's overnight drive as he tore down the autobahn in the dark. Within hours of receiving the news, Reese's mother was on a flight to Germany. His father would soon follow. The family's emotional reserves were already drained; they had not yet recovered from Yuri's near miss, and Reese was not remotely out of the woods.
As his mother, a thirty-year emergency room nurse, would explain later, Reese's body was racked by two competing infections. The dust of Afghanistan, impregnated throughout Reese's body, contains high levels of Acinetobacter gram-negative bacterium that reacts in direct opposition to the antibiotics normally given during surgery. When doctors "wet down" Reese—pumping him full of standard liquid medications—e. coli set up in his lungs. When they "dried" him out—removing the IV bags—his blood pressure dropped, kidneys failed, and heart stopped. Reese swung wildly, wet to dry, dry to wet, several times over the next 48 hours. Yuri and his mother and father ran into the hospital room when his pulse plummeted, only to see him barely recover.
"There were a couple of times that asshole was on the brink of fucking dying," Yuri said.
Once he was finally stable enough to make the flight to Walter Reed military hospital in Washington, the doctors briefly reduced Reese's medication so he would emerge from his coma. Yuri and his father were there, and they spoke to Reese, told him where he was, told him everything was going to be okay. Reese was in distress, but despite his obvious pain, he did two things that relieved Yuri greatly.
First, as their father spoke, Reese turned toward his voice, tried to sit up, tried to respond for the first time. Second, and simultaneously, Reese lifted his left hand, reached down between his legs, and checked to make sure his penis was intact. Once he confirmed everything was in place, Yuri could see his whole body relax, and Reese drifted back off to sleep.
"That was the first time I realized my brother was still there, and may be okay. When he reached for his nuts," Yuri said, laughing.
A few days later, Yuri was sitting in a pub in England, saying goodbye to friends. His commander had just given him permission to leave his unit early, so he could go to Walter Reed and be with Reese before he began pilot training in the summer. As Yuri was relating the circumstances of the worst two weeks of his life, a friend named Matthew Zigler stopped him. Zigler was a helicopter pilot Yuri greatly respected, and also just back from deployment.
"When did you say Reese was injured?" Zigler asked.
Yuri told him. Zigler went quiet a moment, figured the dates in his head.
"That was me," he said. "I'm the pilot who got your brother."
When luck and coincidence aligns with service to others, we humans naturally look for meaning in the unlikeliness. What meaning should we find?
Small world theory is the application of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game to real life. In the 1960s, researchers proved the already popular social myth by tracking letters mailed from random subjects in the Midwest to a contact in Boston. In the early 2000s, Peter Sheridan Dodds and Duncan Watts, scientists at Columbia University, recreated the experiment using email, successfully moving messages around the globe. Nine billion people on the planet, and six degrees separate us all.
"The meaning is something you create on top of the randomness"
Today, Dodds is a professor at the University of Vermont and the Director of the Vermont Complex Systems Center, and Watts is a principal researcher at Microsoft in New York. Both have continued to study such networks, Dodds at the point where statistics and individual experience meet. "Stories help human beings fight against random chance," he said.
They have found that in practical terms, six is actually a very large number when discussing degrees of separation. Dodds said that any separation of more than four is random, unrelated to an individual's social circle. Smaller populations are more likely to be separated by fewer degrees, as are groups with high homophily, a measure of similarity of social characteristics. "Birds of a feather," Watts said.
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans—especially the 223,000 who deployed four or more times, and the 51,000 with six or more tours—fulfill both criteria. In such a uniform sample, both scientists said the maximum separation should be two or three degrees, friends of friends. In general usage, people say "small world" when they discover an unexpected connection, that a cousin and a work colleague went to high school together, for instance. But in such a uniform sample as the frequent deployers of the modern US military, these small world connections should happen all the time.
"The chances of a story like this happening to somebody are actually high. In a community this small, it is almost a certainty," Watts said, regarding Yuri's coincidence. "But none of that should take away the meaning. The meaning is something you create on top of the randomness."
The war is a perpetual motion machine. Many of the 51,000 are from elite flying and special operations units, are lucky to have lasted so long without serious injury. Why push it? Why go back to the war? The answer is in the question. You go back because your comrades are going. Your comrades go because you go.
It's hard to get off the ride because, after years of war, when you get that mission to go rescue the wounded, to relieve a squad in a firefight, to respond to a helicopter crash, to clear an IED, you can expect, mathematically, to be saving a friend. Or a friend's friend. Or a friend's brother.
For the six weeks before his pilot training began, Yuri lived in Reese's hospital room at Walter Reed, defying all authority and convention. Walter Reed is in the heart of Washington, and a crossroads of generals, admirals, senators, First Ladies and Secretaries of Defense. The doctors are often colonels, the nurses majors. So when the medical staff told Yuri to leave, there was no pulling rank; saying he was Captain Hines held no sway. But once they knew he was Reese's brother, the medical staff gave up arguing, and let Yuri sleep on a fold-out chair.
Reese received his Purple Heart while Yuri was staying with him. At the group ceremony, two airmen received the medal, Reese and Gino. Neither man knew it until that moment, but the two had met before. Gino was one of the PJs who had saved Reese, and a week later, on another mission, he was shot. They had shared the same aircraft from Landstuhl to Walter Reed, and the same hospital floor, rooms a hallway apart.
Reese healed quickly, so quickly one respiratory technician dubbed him "Wolverine," for the regenerating comic-book hero. Ultimately, Reese would lose his right eye, his face would be reconstructed, and his right hand would be cobbled back together into something resembling a lobster's claw. But overall, his recovery was almost miraculous, and by the end of the year he ran a Tough Mudder. (He kept both legs.)
He would also get a series of tattoos that told the story of his rescue. On his forearm, the scene of the PJs treating him. Across his belly, Wolverine. On his other arm, Non Omnis Moriar ("not all of me will die"). And on his wrist, his Alive Day, 4-9-11, the anniversary of Tony Capra's death in Iraq.
Yuri left in July for flight school. A decision had coalesced in mind, initiated by the discovery that Zigler was one of the pilots who had rescued his brother. Growing up, Yuri had dreamt of flying, but he realized now that he had always been in a helicopter. An image stuck with him, the greenhouse effect from the overhead glass, sunshine splashing across the controls on a left-hand turn. After Reese and Zigler and Gino, it all made sense. Yuri was always meant to fly rescue helicopters. "I think he wanted to get out of the killing business and wanted to rescue people and be in the same realm I was in, saving lives," Reese said. "I believe ultimately there is some guiding force. I believe there is a fate aspect because it is hard to comprehend otherwise."
But the Air Force is dominated by fighter jocks, not fate, and helo pilots have the lowest status, a massive step down from F-15Es. Yuri would have to fight for the chance to change careers.
Older and wiser, with significant combat experience, Yuri excelled at pilot training, and graduated first in his class. Per tradition, that gave him first choice of airframe. Fighter slots are the most coveted, a chance to fly the brand new F-22 or F-35, and as a former F-15E backseater, Yuri was doubly expected to stay within that vaunted community. Instead, he broke the news to his instructors that he wanted to fly HH-60s. They forced him to meet individually with the wing commander and his deputy, to explain his decision, so contrary to the norms. Yuri told them about Reese, said "I want to give back to the rescue community what the rescue community gave me." The wing commander signed off.
A few weeks later, just after arriving at his first rescue squadron, Yuri was manning the operations desk, a typical job for a new pilot. Yuri's flight commander and immediate boss, Jeff Budis, sat down with him and the two got to talking, telling stories of where they had deployed, discovering if they had mutual friends. Budis was an experienced pilot, had saved soldiers all over the world, and embodied what Yuri hoped to become. Yuri was telling the story of Reese, and why an F-15E bomb-dropper would end up in a rescue squadron, when Budis stopped him.
Just like Zigler, Budis got thoughtful a moment. Then he pulled out a small tan notebook, flipped through the pages of his flight log, found the date and mission, and confirmed it.
"Yup, I flew with Ziggy on that mission," Budis said. "I was the other pilot who saved your brother."
There were only seven men on the helicopter that rescued Reese, and Yuri had now met three of them.
"The way it all aligns is definitely crazy," Reese said. "Maybe these things weren't all circumstantial. There has to be some kind of connection because otherwise the math on that is through the roof. I definitely feel something was afoot to alter all these lives. Tony paid the ultimate price, but had he not done that, maybe I wouldn't have lived. If the PJs hadn't been there in eight minutes, maybe I wouldn't have lived. Being in surgery in 40 minutes is ridiculous. People in the civilian world don't get that kind of response. I definitely feel like there was something to alter all of this."
That something is, at least in part, the small-town military, the math of small world theory. But Dodds and Watts, the network researchers, would be the first to say that the science should never detract from the spiritual importance we humans—being bad at probability—naturally choose to assign. Yuri's meaning was to say thank you, and the only way to do that was to deploy back to Afghanistan and fly his own rescue missions.
"I've always had a special relationship with my brother," he reflected later, "and personally I feel it goes beyond, it extends out of the paradigm of a normal life. I've always felt there is meaning. Call it divine intervention, God's plan, luck, yin-yang, energy, whatever. I just needed that one save."
"Meaning is always there for people to find and create," said Dodds. "Stories help us survive, and they can allow us to flourish."
In the fall of 2014, Yuri finally returned to Afghanistan. He was jumpy and impatient, desperate to make his first save. Once, early in the deployment, he was on stand-by, sitting in the helo, geared up, rotors turning, just waiting on the final confirmation to launch. When the radio report came, though, it was "Victor Sierra Alpha"—vital signs absent in the potential patient—and Yuri started yelling and punching the instrument display; the pilot to his right had to pull him out and calm him down.
So on his second opportunity, he would not be deterred. A Special Forces team was conducting a raid on a high-value target. Pararescue had to be forward positioned, as during Reese's operation three years before. Yuri was "amped up," aggressive, eager to fly, and then the call came.
The Special Forces team medic had been shot through the neck. The potential Landing Zone was hot. Yuri and his wingman launched. When they started taking fire, Yuri wouldn't stop.
"That mission, I was thinking, 'That's my brother on the ground, and I'm going to save his life.' So I said to my wingman, the whole time, 'Let's go, I don't care, we'll figure it out. Yeah, we're getting shot at, it doesn't matter, we're not hit, we're good, let's go let's go let's go,'" Yuri remembered.
They arrived at the objective within 10 minutes. Yuri flew cover, his crew in the back of the helicopter laying down fire with their dual .50-cal machine guns while his wingman did the pick-up. When they arrived back at the base, Yuri needed to see the face of the man they had rescued. He went to the field hospital, pushed his way past soldiers guarding the doors, saying "I'm the fucking dude who picked this guy up, I'm going to see him." Eventually, Yuri told the doctors about Reese, told them why he had returned to Afghanistan at all, and they let him sit in the hospital room as they worked on the injured soldier.
As Yuri remembered the scene, his voice broke, but just for a moment.
"I just kept thinking that that was my brother on the table, and I wanted to live in that moment for as long as I could. And he made it. They both did."
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