[Editor’s Note: Taj Sareen was a friend to us, and the more we learn about the quality of his character in death, the more we wish we could have spent time with him in life. Last fall, on the one-year anniversary of his death, we had the opportunity to raise a glass to him in Alaska with his Red Devil squadron mates during Red Flag, and it was an amazing opportunity to learn more about him, as seen through the eyes of his comrades. Mahalo, Cabbie!]
The first time it happens, they tell you that you have to let them go. You are young, invincible, and it could never be you…until it is the guy next to you. No matter what, they tell you to let them go; but, the reality of the situation for anyone who has experienced a loss like this is simple: you can never let them go.
It was during my time with my first squadron that I first had the privilege of working with the “Red Devils” of VMFA-232, a US Marine Corps fighter squadron flying F/A-18 Hornets. They were deployed with us aboard the USS Nimitz, and there was no mistaking the Marines were aboard from day one.
Within days, every pipe on the ship was labeled “This is NOT a pull-up bar,” all in a pathetic effort to stop the Devils from destroying the Nimitz to get their daily workouts in. It went further than that, though. Even though I was flying the E-2C Hawkeye on this deployment, my interactions with the pilots of VMFA-232 were constant: from the LSO platform as I learned my new “Paddles” trade; to airborne when they would never pass up the opportunity to join up on the big Hawkeye and be led into the break—even if they would get in trouble every time they did it. The world was their playground, and they were larger than life, enjoying the floating airport supplied to them by the US Navy.
I will never forget the first port call I experienced with the Red Devils when they came to our “Admin” (hotel room for squadron partying) all decked out in matching, custom-made red suits. Their brotherhood was remarkable and had a huge impact on me later applying for a transition to fly the Hornet.
With this in mind, it came as no surprise to me that when on October 21, 2015, word came out that one of the Devils had lost his life in the most heroic of ways. While I never deployed with Major Taj “Cabbie” Sareen, I was stationed with those who did and the impact was immediate and fierce.
With it came all the memories of those who I did know who are now gone well before their time. In the weeks and months ahead of an incident like that, people are always searching for answers. Even so, the same sentiment comes out eventually, and is repeated: “You just have to let them go.”
Easier said than done.
Cabbie touched lives both in and out of the Marine Corps. Even today, looking at his photo, you are left shaken from the power and intensity in the eyes staring back. He was not a man who did his job out of selfish reasons, but for the good of all of us and everyone he encountered. Cabbie was constantly looking to make those around him better, stronger, and wiser from his own shortcomings and experiences—good or bad. He was very simply wanting to be a blessing to those who would never be able to slip the surly bonds of earth.
In one story told by a former squadron mate, he and Cabbie ran across each other in the hot pits in El Centro. After talking on a tactical frequency, Cabbie, without hesitation offered his squadron mate and friends access to his San Diego apartment and use of any of his cars during their stay—but it didn’t stop there.
Remembering Cabbie from squadron social functions, one recounts how he always took time to get to know the wives, girlfriends, and families of his fellow Red Devils. He understood how uncomfortable those events could be for some, and he took a genuine interest in getting to know each person around him, making them more comfortable.
Even during his last moments in this world, there are eyewitness accounts that Cabbie steered his stricken Hornet away from populated areas on the ground, sacrificing his life to save others. He seemed to have the energy of 10 men. Never satisfied and always striving for more, he left this world a better place than he found it. But what about those still here?
That is the million-dollar question. Every member of the military who has served any amount of time can close their eyes and instantly be confronted with those they’ve lost. Whether it was a time flying, a joke in the ready room, or a port call that can never be forgotten, the images flood back in force. It affects everyone differently. Some laugh and some cry, and still others begin to shake and feel like they are in a bad dream that will never end.
“Why them and why not me?” is often the question.
Survivor’s guilt is what the professionals call it, but none of that matters to the service member that has more questions than answers. How do you go back to your daily life now with a huge hole in your heart? How do you keep moving forward when great men and women are taken before their time?
I will never forget sitting at a bar with a very close friend of mine who is no longer with us. We were sitting in this bar, toasting a comrade who had recently died in a crash, and while sitting there telling stories and making up lies, a woman approached us and interrupted with a simple question:
“Excuse me, I have been listening to you for the last hour and I am sorry for your loss, but I have a question. After something so tragic, do the rest of you go back to flying, or do you quit and move onto other phases of your life and other jobs?”
The question brought with it complete and utter silence, as every aviator in the group took a moment to ponder the woman’s question. After what seemed like an eternity, my friend broke the silence.
“Of course, you fly. You lift your head up high to honor your fallen brother or sister, and you take comfort knowing that—as a pilot—you have the unique ability to lift yourself up off the ground and into the clouds. You will be closer to them on every flight and have yet another guardian angel ensuring your safe landing. It is never easy, but it is what we do so that others will remember their sacrifice.”
Taj, you were a man who touched so many in your short time here, and you continue to touch lives and inspire every day. You were a Red Devil in the purest form, and there are many aviators today who are blessed to have you watching over them. Their guardian now is a Red Devil with an angel’s wings.
(Featured Photo courtesy of United States Marine Corps)