Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Mother's Intent

by Jay C Stalnacker
(A tribute on Mother's Day)

We had a search and rescue mission for a young marine who had gone missing in one of our remote hiking areas. It was late in the second day of the search effort and we were about to hit the “golden hour”. Basically, that’s a decision point when we begin to consider all of the options, including recovery instead of rescue. I had called Don because we needed a helicopter as our developing plan included flying over the search area to look for any sign of the kid before darkness set in. I met Don at the air base and soon we were floating above the ground heading towards the search area.

As we approached the mountains I began to really get a feel for the landscape and our challenges ahead. There is simply nothing like flying low across tree tops in a helicopter. Even in these situations you can’t help but smile as the wind blows across your face and everything below you looks like a child’s sandbox. Glancing at the rough mountainous terrain I could intermittently see searchers with dogs, on horse back and hiking around. It was obvious if this kid was on a trail we would find him, but if he was off trail it would be near impossible.

As we climbed in altitude up canyon over the search area I began to notice a significant decrease in speed and glancing over I saw a look on Don’s face that only means one thing. I know that look. As years early, after being picked up by a helicopter from a fire we had jumped, I had been involved in an “emergency” landing. The pilot had this same look.

It’s not a pleasing look as normally, good pilots are fairly stoic and calm in most all situations and Don was a good pilot. So seeing that look again, I knew something was not right. Our helicopter was far underpowered for the mission and altitude. Back at the air base Don had reminded me of this prior to lifting off but we decided to go anyway because we both knew time was not on our side in finding this kid. The helicopter began to drop and within moments Don swung us around 180 degrees and now the nose was facing down canyon and falling downward. Due to the wind noise and commotion it was hard to tell when the motor shut down but later I would assume we auto-rotated for a while as we rapidly dropped eventually regaining power right about ground zero. Don was white as a ghost, sweating and silent. We cleared the search area never speaking a word to each other the entire flight back to the air base. Honestly, I’ve had one to many of these “close calls” and way to many search missions like this over the past 18 years.

This search began and ended like a movie script. A young marine on leave goes AWOL, his best friend reports him as missing on a trail, possibly attacked and killed by a mountain lion. It ends sadly, as we find the marine alive and well in another state and on the run. The whole missing hiker story and “planted blood on the trail” was sadly fabricated in attempt to keep him from returning to combat.

These search and rescue missions get even stranger and unfortunately more sad and disturbing. Missing children are the hardest to deal with. A small child moves a lot quicker and farther than you would imagine and travels in areas an adult would not even consider. So trying to anticipate the child’s movements and decisions is almost futile. I’ve had numerous missing children searches, most ending quickly as we find the child under a bed in the house or if the search is in the woods we find them nearby on a trail with a family who found the child walking aimlessly alone. But then there are the other missions that haunt you forever. The abductions, the recovering of a child’s lifeless body or worse yet, a child gone missing forever.

As I am typically incident commander in most of these situations, part of my job is to work with the family, updating them on the progress of our effort, sharing our findings of any significant clues and also interviewing them to determine if something even more sinister had happened. It’s a very fine line playing detective, friend and professional. It’s even harder when you have a child of your own as everything you do becomes very intimate. On one of my more recent searches, during an interview of the mother I eventually broke down. It was terrible as my lapse of self discipline most likely displayed a level of professionalism not ideal to the situation and once these things become that personal your decisions become somewhat compromised. In any case, these emotions always hit me when I’m talking to the mother. Never with a father, brother, sister, aunt and grandparent. Somehow I seem to be able to maintain some emotional control with these other family members. But it’s the conversations with the mother that brings true meaning to our purpose and always stabbing pain to my heart and soul.

There is simply nothing more impacting than watching a mother plead with you to find her child. No matter what that relationship between the two was or age of the child before they go missing there is a primitive love that surfaces and it is both universal and timeless. We talk about “leaders intent” in our world of incident leadership. I will tell you there is no better example of this than a mother begging you to find her lost child. Her words are direct, concise, clear and focused. She exudes empowerment, bleeds passion and demands motivation. After hearing her plea, rescuers and searchers leave that command post with charge and hope that is raw and real. It’s a beautiful, sad and ironic event to witness. As your anxious to bring her peace but at the same time your heart aches for her because you fear the worst.

Folks like me spend a lifetime studying leadership and I now have come to realize some of the best leaders have been the ones changing our diapers, bandaging our knees and rocking us to sleep. As I lean in close next to a missing child’s mother, listening to her memories of the last moments she saw her child, describing in amazing detail the clothes and shoes they were wearing the day they went missing and recalling all the happy memories. I cannot help but feel I’ve been allowed to enter into a very special place. A place where only a mother is allowed, somewhere filled with love, brightness and full of hope. A dimension in time when her child is always an age where they were most happy. It’s magical and every time I am there I feel honored and fortunate to have been a “visitor” even given the circumstances. A mother's love is something only she understands and knows and in times like this indescribably beautiful.

Today as we celebrate Mother's Day and I look back on so many of these intimate moments with so many mothers, I try to understand the reasons God has allowed me to share this connection with a stranger and I struggle to find the meaning why he placed me there. As over time I have begun to question the purpose of my work, maybe this moment is to remind me that what he has guided me to do for a living is of great worth and value. As after years of exposure, I struggle to find passion in my work, so maybe this moment is to remind me that this lost child is more than another mission. Or as I become more secluded and sheltered in myself and have slowly pulled away from my own mother, maybe just maybe it’s a reminder of how very special a mother’s love is to all of us.

Reprinted with permission by Jay Stalnacker, FMO Boulder County Sheriff's Office, from his blog "The North Star Foundation." All expressions are those of the author.

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