The Lucky Few

 

ddayforckBy Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot

A 91-year-old man lifts off in a commercial airliner bound for France and for a moment can imagine himself in the cabin of a Douglas C-47, preparing to leap into moonlit darkness.

Norwood Thomas was just a boy, really, the first time he arrived in Normandy. Now he is returning for the last time, once again mindful of his own mortality.

More than 100,000 Americans were there at the start of the campaign to retake Europe from Hitler. Only a few hundred are expected to return this week. Thousands more, many too frail to travel, will mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day back home.

Thomas flew out of Norfolk last week. Grant “Gully” Gullickson isn’t far behind. Cary Jarvis and Eddie Shames wish they could join them; they’ll spend the day with family in Virginia Beach.

None of them knew one another on that day, yet they are forever linked by it. They are among the lucky few – the ones who survived brutal fighting and then the merciless march of time. Almost all of their buddies are dead.

Memories dull with age, but certain moments stick with them: The feel of cool sand against the face; the cries of grown men struggling for air; the smell of exploded gunpowder and burned flesh.

The tales they tell sound improbable and, with few living witnesses, some details are elusive. But these men were there; this is how they remember it.

For at least one more day, the world will pause and listen.

CONTINUE READING (Part 1 of 7)

 

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Out of fuel, out of time – one chance to land

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot
© April 13, 2014

The aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower was finally in sight.

RIMPACThe pilot of the F/A-18 Super Hornet hurriedly flipped switches and pushed levers. The aviator in the backseat leaned forward, straining to see the flight deck floating in the distance. The jet’s right engine had locked up, its landing gear had jammed, and the main fuel tank was almost empty.

At nearly 350 mph, the Super Hornet hurtled over the warm waters of the North Arabian Sea last April. The pilot had made some tough decisions that day; several hadn’t gone his way.

Now he was out of options. He had one chance to land.

___ Continue reading “Out of fuel, out of time – one chance to land”

The Navy’s most dangerous helicopter keeps flying

NORFOLK

The Navy started making plans in the late 1990s to retire the most powerful and crash-prone helicopters in its fleet.

By then, several of the service’s MH-53E Sea Dragons – the only U.S. helicopter capable of towing a specialized sled through water to detect and clear mines – were approaching the end of their planned service lives, and Navy leadership needed to make a decision: Invest a significant amount of money to keep the helicopters flying, or develop a replacement.

They chose the latter.

But a plan to outfit a smaller helicopter to hunt underwater mines fizzled. New technology didn’t work as designed. Shipping lane security threats increased after 9/11, along with demand for the Sea Dragon’s unique capabilities. And as a result, retirement of the Cold War-era aircraft got pushed back from 2008 to 2012, and then from to 2012 to sometime next decade.

Over time, “the Navy slowly but surely kind of forgot” about the Sea Dragon community, Capt. Todd Flannery said in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot last fall, a year after a spate of crashes overseas prompted the service to take a hard look at the program.

The Navy found systemic problems: Maintenance was being conducted haphazardly. Standard operating procedures were being skipped. Only a few Sea Dragons were ready to fly at any given time, and among them, a third weren’t even equipped to perform the core mine clearing mission.

The squadrons had developed their own ways of doing business, Flannery said last fall, essentially “finding ways to do more with less.”

“It was a failure of many things,” said Flannery, the commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic. “It was a failure of leadership. It was a failure of maintenance. It was a failure of operations. There were just many things that came to a head that led to this.”

Last year, the Navy committed millions of dollars to turn things around. It upgraded the aircraft with night vision technology and new sensors to detect mechanical problems. It added dozens of maintenance personnel. It beefed up pilot training. And it tapped Flannery, a career SH-60F Seahawk pilot, to implement leadership and cultural changes at the service’s two helicopter mine countermeasures squadrons, HM-14 and HM-15. Both are based at Norfolk Naval Station.

The investments of attention and money were paying off, Flannery said in October. The Sea Dragon community still had a long way to go, but it was back on the right path. “We’re not there yet by a long shot,” he said at the time.

Then last month, another Sea Dragon went down, this time closer to home. The watery crash on Jan. 8 off the coast of Virginia Beach killed three of five crew members. The Navy is investigating what caused the accident.

The deadly mishap rocked the close-knit Sea Dragon community. It also attracted attention to a specialized naval helicopter program that had grown used to flying under the radar.

___

The MH-53E Sea Dragon, a variant of the Sikorsky-built Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion, joined the Navy’s fleet in the mid-1980s. Since then, no Navy helicopter has crashed at a higher rate.

Sea Dragons have been involved in 6.5 serious mishaps for every 100,000 flight hours since 1984, a rate more than three times greater than the rest of the service’s helicopters. Last month’s crash in the Atlantic Ocean was the 15th involving a Sea Dragon and the eighth to result in fatalities.

The helicopter’s demanding mission might have something to do with its below-average safety record, according to former pilots and aircraft maintainers. The Sea Dragon relies on three massive turbo shaft engines to drag a sled roughly the size and weight of an F-250 pickup truck through the water.

Unlike the Marine version, which is primarily used to transport troops and supplies, the Sea Dragon operates under constant stress while towing the sled, usually flying low and taking up a continuous saltwater mist that causes its airframe and components to rust more quickly.

The Navy acknowledges that the Sea Dragon mission is labor-intensive, but the helicopter was designed to pull against 25,000 pounds of sustained tension and never comes close to that while conducting mine sweeps. Flannery said the mission shouldn’t be blamed for its safety record.

For every hour in the sky, the Sea Dragon requires an average of 35 hours of work on the ground – down from more than 50 hours a decade ago, thanks in part to more efficient techniques – making it the most maintenance intensive helicopter in the fleet.

It’s also among the oldest. Originally built to last about 6,000 flight hours, several Sea Dragons have eclipsed that mark. Sixteen of the Navy’s 28 Sea Dragons have had a key bulkhead replaced, extending their service life to 10,000 flight hours.

A number of mechanical and design problems have surfaced over the years.

At least five times over the past three decades, the Pentagon has grounded its entire fleet of Sea Dragon and Super Stallion helicopters. The first mass grounding came in 1984, following a Marine helicopter crash. In 1987, they were grounded again after engineers found a design flaw in the gearbox of the helicopter’s No. 2 engine.

The entire fleet was grounded again in 1992 when a deadly crash in Jacksonville, Fla., revealed a problem in the main rotor assembly.

The fourth mass grounding came in 1996 after a new Super Stallion crashed during a test flight near a Sikorsky factory in Stratford, Conn., killing four crew members. A defective part at the base of the rotor called the swashplate duplex bearing was blamed in that accident.

The swashplate adjusts the angle and tilt of the blades on the rotor to move the helicopter. The faulty bearing was inspected and replaced across the fleet.

Four years later, the same part was singled out after a Sea Dragon went down off Corpus Christi, Texas, killing four sailors and wounding two. After that crash, the Pentagon ordered every Sea Dragon and Sea Stallion grounded and equipped with a new system to monitor temperature and vibration of ball bearings in the swashplate. The monitors warn pilots if friction is building to the point of failure.

In 2001, Kaydon Corp., the Michigan-based company that supplied Sikorsky with the swashplate, admitted in federal court that employees falsified inspection records while testing the parts. Although denying it was to blame for any crashes, the company agreed to pay surviving family members an undisclosed amount, according to court records.

A 2005 lawsuit against Sikorsky also resulted in payouts to the families of fallen crew members. Frank Fleming, a New York aviation lawyer and former Marine helicopter pilot, filed the case on behalf of four sailors killed when their Sea Dragon caught fire and crashed in southern Italy.

The blaze started in the aircraft’s No. 2 engine, which Fleming argued was a recurring problem Sikorsky had learned about and ignored more than a decade earlier. Sikorsky denied the allegation. It settled the case out of court.

After researching the case, Fleming said he wouldn’t rule out flying in a Sea Dragon. But he might hesitate.

“Safety is a broad and flexible concept,” he said.

Overall, he thinks the helicopter he flew in Vietnam, a Sea Dragon predecessor, was safer.

By the time Fleming won a settlement for his clients, the Navy had begun to rework the plans to retire its mine-clearing workhorse.

___

During the first Gulf War, the Navy’s fleet of Sea Dragons found and destroyed dozens of underwater mines. Two decades later, mine warfare remains high on the service’s list of strategic priorities.

In 2011, when Iran threatened to choke off the Strait of Hormuz with submerged mines, the Navy sent two additional Sea Dragons to Bahrain, doubling the number it keeps in the region. The following year, the helicopters played a central role in a massive international mine hunting exercise in the strait, which serves as main supply channel for much of the world’s oil.

There are other ways to clear mines – the Navy has used everything from surface ships to specially trained dolphins – but airborne mine-hunters offer a special set of capabilities.

The Sea Dragon – the only military helicopter specifically designed to clear mines – can respond more rapidly to threats and sweep faster and closer to the shore than surface ships. Dragging a sled from above also helps keep sailors out of harm’s way.

But keeping the maintenance-intensive Sea Dragons flying doesn’t come cheap. In the late 1990s, top brass began planning to replace the Sea Dragon with a more flexible and cost-effective option: the MH-60S Seahawk. The Navy envisioned equipping the smaller and far less powerful helicopter with a special mine-clearing kit and planned to begin deploying them on aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships in 2005.

That never happened, and the Sea Dragon retirement was pushed back.

Around 2007, the Navy said it would instead deploy the mine-hunting Seahawk aboard its new fleet of littoral combat ships, envisioned as a fast-moving mothership for mine-hunting helicopters and a host of unmanned underwater vehicles.

But last year, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation announced that the MH-60S was not powerful enough to tow the minesweeping and sonar equipment, forcing the Navy to scrap the plan.

And so the Sea Dragons fly on with no concrete plan for when the program will end.

After the crash last month, Flannery told reporters he had no concerns about the long-term safety of the helicopter.

“The Navy is taking appropriate steps to ensure the viability of the MH-53E until its services are no longer required,” Flannery wrote in an email this week.

Bill Arnold, a retired Navy captain, was among the first pilots to fly the Sea Dragon and served as the commanding officer at HM-14 in 1989. Back then, the Navy was still building new Sea Dragons, the program was well-funded and morale was high, Arnold said.

For the past decade, the community has operated under a cloud of uncertainty.

“I can tell you that once the Navy has decided an aircraft is going away, they quit putting money into it and quit putting emphasis in it,” Arnold said. “That has a big impact. You tell a community you’re going away, where do you think the best pilots are going to go?”

Another change that affected the community: As the Navy prepared to wind down the program, the service consolidated its five HM squadrons to just two and placed them under the command of air wings that include several other types of helicopters.

Sea Dragon aircrewmen – the enlisted sailors who operate the mine-clearing equipment – used to spend multiple tours at various HM squadrons spread across the country, and were trained to maintain their own aircraft, Arnold said. Since consolidation, Arnold said most aircrewmen spend one tour working on Sea Dragons before transferring to another airframe.

“We used to have an entire wing that was all aerial mine countermeasures,” Arnold said. “Then you lose that identity and that backing, and soon the culture suffers for it.”

About the reporting: This story is based on numerous sources, including archived newspaper articles, federal court records, information from the Naval Safety Center, Naval Air Systems Command, Naval Air Force Atlantic, as well as interviews with Navy officials, former pilots and aircraft maintainers.

Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949, mike.hixenbaugh@pilotonline.com

Sam Abell

Sam-Abell-Hold-Photo

 

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

Having turned away from his quest at National Geographic
for an America of nostalgia, a renowned photographer
now seeks to see America as it really is.

by MIKE HIXENBAUGH
photography by HYUNSOO LEO KIM
archive photographs courtesy of SAM ABELL

Before he became one of the most respected photographers of his generation, before the storied career at National Geographic, before the nationally touring art exhibits, before the lifetime achievement awards, Sam Abell was an antsy little boy staring at a needlepoint map of America.

That’s what obedient children did at the Abell household when adults stopped by for adult conversations – they sat quietly in the family room, daydreaming as they studied the cloth map that had been encased inside a glass coffee table, the map their mother had made in 1942 when she was pregnant with the first of her two boys.

Within the border of each state she had stitched a symbol of beauty, or history, or ingenuity – America as she imagined it. A prickly cactus in Arizona. Golden wheat stalks in Kansas. A cowboy riding a horse in Texas. Smoke rising from a thriving steel mill in the Abells’ home state, Ohio. George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

For the better part of four decades, Sam Abell carried a camera across America in search of those idyllic images. He photographed ranchers roping steer in Montana, bison grazing through snow in North Dakota, a lone fisherman obscured by fog on the Mississippi River. The photos are iconic, expertly composed. They hang on walls in museums and fill the pages of books and magazines.

The images Abell spent decades chasing depict America as he dreamed it would be in all those hours gazing at his mother’s map. They are photographs of the wild and untouched New World.

And they are mostly superficial.

The realization hit Abell without warning a decade ago. He had been among the most celebrated documentary photographers of the late 20th century, yet he had spent most of his career making images that more closely resembled scenes from the 18th century.

“I was treasure hunting,” Abell says of his work for National Geographic. “I was on the beach with a metal detector looking for a ring, the whole while disregarding the ocean and the sky and the sand. I went to great lengths to escape the authentic, modern world around me, searching instead for a hidden vestige of another era.”

Sam Abell had spent his career photographing America the way his mother imagined it.

Now he’s searching for the real story.

___

The views from Abell’s eighth-floor downtown Charlottesville studio perfectly symbolize his late artistic awakening. Out one window is the historic Court Square where Thomas Jefferson and James Madison once argued cases. Antique black lampposts stand along brick sidewalks and streets. A tree-covered mountain range is on the horizon.

Out another window, on the opposite side of the studio, is a municipal parking deck. Cars whip along an asphalt street painted with double yellow lines. A thicket of power lines obstructs the view of a narrow sidewalk where two restaurant workers are taking a smoke break.

The first scene is what drew Abell, who will soon turn 69, to Virginia many years ago. He and his wife live in Crozet, on a plot of land near the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As he traveled the world searching for images of natural beauty, cultural meaning and historic significance, he chose to plant roots in a place that seemed to embody all of those things. He moved here when he started at National Geographic in the 1970s and never left.

“Virginia,” Abell says, “has a hold on people, including me, that comes from a gathering together of very important things: History, culture, geography, climate, landscape. Charlottesville is a coming together of the best of all those things.”

It’s one of the places he remembers visiting with his family as a boy during one of their many road trips across America. He vividly recalls standing in the garden at Monticello with his older brother. They each held up a nickel in the direction of Jefferson’s grand estate and closed one eye, trying to see if the picture on the coin matched the building before them.

Abell family vacations were elaborate history lessons. The family of four studied the American landscape as it flashed by their car windows. They traveled scenic back roads and took rest breaks at Civil War battlefields. “My parents were both teachers, and so when we traveled, it was not about sunbathing and it was not about mountain climbing or fishing or rafting. It was about American history.”

Dad always carried a camera. The developed film reel would arrive in the mail about two weeks after they returned each summer. The slide shows documenting those trips were in Technicolor, and they featured a smiling family against the backdrop of America.

But with each passing year, it became more difficult to ignore the changing landscape.

___

Abell was working on a project about Lewis and Clark when he heard the words that would reshape the way he sees the world.

It was 2001, and this was to be his final assignment for National Geographic. He met with the writer, historian Stephen Ambrose, in Helena, Montana, to discuss the project.

“Sam, I’ve got the easiest job to do on this project,” Ambrose said. “All I have to do is retell the story of the greatest fishing, camping, hunting and boating trip of all time. You, Sam, have the hardest job. You have to pretend that nothing’s changed in America for 200 years.”

That offhand comment was a resounding wakeup call. Abell realized, quite suddenly, that he had been fictionalizing America. He had spent years traveling through the modern world – in a car, or on foot, or in a boat – disregarding almost everything he saw “in search of fragments that were beholden of another time, another way of life.”

He thought of  a months-long assignment from years back for a travel story in the vast Australian wilderness. It was boring. He barely saw anything worth photographing. But he managed to capture a few breathtaking shots, and those are the images that ran in the magazine. He thought, “My God, people are going to come here and they’re going to say, ‘Where is it?!’ ” Had he been doing the same thing in America?

That conversation with Ambrose sparked an idea – one that Abell first had as a photography student at the University of Kentucky but that he had lost sight of, having landed at National Geographic. It’s perhaps the most celebrated photographic magazine in the world, but its style skews toward beauty over realism. His dream job led him away from his roots.

He had grown to love his craft while studying the work of Walker Evans(American Photographs, 1938) and Robert Frank (The Americans, 1958), two photographers known for their blunt and honest portrayal of America and its people. As a student, he had dreamed of picking up where they left off.

Retirement offered a fresh shot. Abell wrapped up the Lewis and Clark assignment and immediately went to work on a new long-term project that would become his obsession – one that bears little resemblance to his celebrated portfolio.

“It’s a rebound project,” he says. “It’s also a reaction against romancing America. I don’t have regrets about that. I was capable of doing that. I was good at doing that. I made the romance meaningful, not candy. My photographs always tried to have an intelligence about them and a soul that went beyond the surface of the picture. But now I wanted to take up all those things I had passed by while searching for the exception.”

Abell settled down in Virginia for its lush landscape and history. But lately it’s that parking deck he’s been looking at for inspiration.

___

The subjects of Abell’s photography have changed dramatically, but his approach is rooted in many of the same foundational techniques his father taught him as a boy in Sylvania, Ohio.

Abell won an award in a national high school photography contest in 1960 for a black-and-white picture of his father standing at a train station. His old man had offered a few pointers – get a low angle, “look for strong diagonals,” and then wait for a train to move into the frame. Years later, someone paid $10,000 for a copy of the image that resulted from that impromptu lesson.

Abell is known for composing his images from the back to front, a painstaking and counterintuitive approach that requires as much patience as it does vision. First he searches for a dynamic background and attempts to build meaning into every layer. Once he has composed the image, he waits for the subject to move into the shot.

On assignment for National Geographic, that often meant several hours or even days camped out in the same spot, waiting for the right light to reflect off a river or for wildlife to move into his frame. Abell once spent a year and a half making an image of bison skulls on a prairie for a story on the life of Charles M. Russell, the cowboy artist of Montana. After he found a pile of discarded skulls, he made multiple trips to the scene, waiting for the right elements. Finally he captured a live bison passing through the background on a snowy day. The project was complete.

Compose … and wait.

Lately Abell has been employing that unconventional approach while photographing people at fast-food restaurants, smokers standing outside department stores and business people staring at cell phones while walking down busy sidewalks. He carries his camera always as he travels the country to lead photography workshops and lectures.

“I’m always on assignment,” he says while sipping a coffee outside a café in Charlottesville. “I’m on assignment right now.”

For now he’s calling the project “Modern American History,” drawing inspiration from a college professor who once told him that the main theme of American literature is to come to terms with what we – the arriving peoples – have done to the New World. “I wrote that down and I never forgot it.”

The working collection includes images of people riding trains through rolling countryside, but instead of looking out the window, they’re staring at screens in their hands. It includes shots from the Lewis and Clark Trail, but instead of framing out the power lines, highways and truck stops, those modern creations are the subject.

Sam Abell, Distinction Magazine, National Geographic Photographer, Distinction, Viriginia, LoveVA, Charlottesville, Photographer, Photographer Abell

Abell has become obsessed with photographing product distribution centers – “the most constructed building of the past 50 years,” he says – and self-storage facilities, where people indefinitely stash the stuff that won’t fit inside their homes.

The man who earned fame photographing real-life cowboys spent a recent trip to Dallas marveling at the massive Cowboys Stadium, a gargantuan building capable of hosting more than 100,000 spectators and home to the world’s largest high-definition screen. “This stadium is an architectural temple to football, surrounded by an ocean of automobiles,” he says. “This is modern America on steroids.”

Themes of Abell’s post-retirement project include: automobiles and how they have shaped the modern landscape, the mass consumption of processed food, the triumph of mass marketing in all aspects of life, the influence of consumer electronics on behavior, and industrial, commercialized patriotism.

Abell, who plans to publish the project in 2015, says he’s trying his best to remain neutral.

“I think the thing that would doom this is if I were trying to make a statement, either condemning or celebrating modern American culture,” he says. “That’s not my goal. My hope is to present an authentic portrait of this country as it exists in our time, in an effort to continue the conversation that was started by Walker Evans and Robert Frank. My strongest statement, I think, is a question, not an answer. And that is: Was there another way?”

Press him hard enough, though – ask him to contrast his recent work with the images he chased during his storied career – and it’s obvious that Abell believes the answer to that question must be, “Yes.”

___

Abell isn’t jaded, he says. He’s simply documenting the world around him as it is, not searching for beauty in the margins but instead searching for meaning in the authentic world before him.

His mother’s old needlepoint map hangs in a frame in his Charlottesville studio, alongside cherished photographs from his many travels – all reminders of how far he’s come in pursuit of an interesting life. Once in a while he’ll pull the map off the wall, set it on the table and daydream about the images his mother stitched so many years ago.

He turns from the map and points to his computer screen; it’s open to the gallery of his latest work. The cursor hangs over a photo of a young couple at a beach in Florida. They’re tourists driving along a boardwalk in a convertible. They’re seeing the ocean for the first time, and they’re both seeing it – separately – through the screens of matching digital cameras.

Abell looks at the photo and thinks of his mother, who died in 1981, long before the rise of smartphones and social media and widespread instant gratification. She grew up in an era with fewer distractions and simpler dreams. Hers was for her boys to travel the country she loved – to visit every state on that map – and to see the images of Americana that colored her imagination.

Her younger son wonders what she would think of his most recent pursuits. “She wouldn’t recognize the America in these photos.”

Boys’ quest to shovel snow comes up empty

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot
© January 30, 2014

PORTSMOUTH

Where other children saw a chance to make snow angels, 12-year-old Eugene Warren and 11-year-old Damarion West saw a chance to make some cash.

The boys inhaled their breakfasts, pulled on extra pairs of pants and mismatched gloves, snagged a couple of rusted garden shovels from a parent’s shed and headed into the snow-covered Port Norfolk neighborhood Wednesday.

Damarion, the self-proclaimed “business manager” of the duo, knocked on the first door: “Can we do your porch for $20?”

An awkward smile, a head shake, a closed door, and on to the next one.

“Dude, look at all this snow,” Damarion said as he climbed a snow drift to reach another porch. “We’re going to be rich.”

But at this house – and the next dozen – either nobody was home, or they weren’t coming to the door.

“This seems like a long way to walk in the snow for 20 bucks,” said Eugene, who had begun to use his shovel as a walking stick.

“Nah, man, I’d walk to the moon,” Damarion said.

“For 20 bucks?”

“Yeah.”

At the next house, a man came to the door. He swiftly rejected the offer and started to shut the door; Damarion blurted out in desperation: “We’ll do it for $1 each!”

The answer was the same.

Eugene later questioned his friend’s negotiating tactic: “That doesn’t sound like enough money to shovel all that snow.”

“I’ll handle the business side,” Damarion quipped as they continued on to the next house. And on to the next rejection. And the next.

They passed a group of their friends who’d spent the morning making a snowman. Now the friends were having a snowball fight, laughing and screaming with glee.

“This is getting depressing,” Damarion said as the boys walked toward their next rejection. He briefly considered claiming that he needed money to feed his starving family, but chickened out after knocking.

“Can we do your porch?”

“I’m not leaving the house today.”

That sounded like a better idea. After almost two hours and not a single bite, the two boys slung their shovels over their shoulders and headed for home.

Eugene put his arm around his friend: “We’ll try again next time it snows.”

The War Next Door | Can a vet with PTSD come home?

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot
© December 16, 2013

VIRGINIA BEACH

The man in the grainy surveillance footage strides through the sleepy cul-de-sac with purpose, like someone in command of his own destiny.

Freeze the frame, zoom in close. His eyes tell a different story: wide, unblinking, confused.

He has lost all control.

The disabled veteran had been coming unhinged for months. Security cameras installed by his neighbors captured him that night as he hit bottom.

It was about 1 a.m., a few days after Thanksgiving last year.

He had come to spray paint their houses. Earlier in the week, he had shattered their car windows. Later, he was prepared to take more drastic measures – whatever it took to send a message.

He was convinced that the residents of Loveland Lane were working for terrorists, and he wanted to punish them.

It pained him to go this route.

This same street is where the former Navy Seabee discovered his passion for cycling after being medically discharged from the military. It’s where he battled post-traumatic stress disorder, kicked his addiction to pain meds and overcame depression. It’s where he met his best friends and fell in love.

Ted Olsen had planned to spend the rest of his life in this neighborhood.

Now the voices were telling him to burn it to the ground.

____

From the curb, Loveland Lane is a typical suburban street: modest homes built on one-fifth-acre lots. Small front yards. Two cars in each driveway. Garbage cans left out after trash day.

Knock on a few doors, though – ask about what happened here a year ago – and it becomes clear that there’s something different about this place. Residents learned the hard way that no privacy fence could fully isolate them from one another.

Here, families wrestle with questions that have no easy answers.

What do you do when your neighbor loses his mind?

Does a community’s desire for peace and security trump a collective responsibility to those who’ve been damaged defending those rights?

Can a broken man be restored and come home again?

Even Ted isn’t sure he knows the answer to that last one anymore.

____

Location is what drew him here 15 years ago. Loveland Lane is just minutes from the Navy’s Dam Neck Annex, home to the stealthy special warfare command where he served most of a decade.

His mother, a real estate agent, helped him find the three-bedroom home. It’s where he rested when he wasn’t on secret training missions or deployed as a small-boat operator and mechanic supporting Naval Special Warfare Development Group – a unit his family knew as SEAL Team 6.

The house became his refuge after combat deployments. It’s where he recovered after a massive garage door jumped track on base and crashed down on his head, knocking him unconscious. He retreated here after countless surgeries to correct chronic problems in his legs and back from countless hours speeding through choppy waters at the helm of a rigid-hull inflatable boat.

After the injuries forced him to leave the Navy in 2006, he used his new abundance of free time to make the house his own. He painted walls, installed a hot tub, remodeled the kitchen, decorated a bedroom with a relaxing beach theme.

Soon, though, he was drawing the blinds and refusing to go outside. He was in his mid-30s, medically retired and relying on a cocktail of painkillers and anti-depressants.

Some days were better than others. The one when he forced himself outside for fresh air and ended up meeting A.J. Sanders and his wife, Genie, stood out.

Ted had often noticed the retired Navy vet riding a bicycle through the cul-de-sac on his way to the cycling shop where he worked. A.J. invited Ted down to the shop and helped him pick out a road bike. The neighbors became riding buddies, then friends.

They threw joint birthday parties, adopted similar dachshund puppies and exchanged spare house keys. When Genie went into labor, Ted rushed to the hospital to bring them the camera they had forgotten at home. Later, they asked him to baby-sit.

Cycling became Ted’s emotional and physical release. A few months after picking up the sport, he decided to flush his stash of VA-prescribed opiates, relying instead on exercise and endorphins to beat the pain.

In early 2012, Ted and his girlfriend were focused on starting a nonprofit with the goal of organizing triathlons for wounded veterans like him. Even after the couple broke up, getting “United We Tri” off the ground was Ted’s obsession.

And then, it wasn’t.

The change was subtle at first. He backed off his daily training regimen. He seemed distracted during conversations with friends. He often spaced out and stared into the distance. When he did speak, he didn’t always make sense.

He became convinced that a terrorist group had hacked the nonprofit’s website. He shared the theory with skeptical friends and family before reporting his suspicion to the FBI.

Later, he removed the GPS from his car, fearing someone was tracking his movements.

He dismantled the fan above his stove, searching for hidden recording devices.

That June, Ted’s mother, Mary, called A.J. at the bike shop and asked him go to check on her son.

“It’s Teddy,” she said, sounding frantic. “Somebody’s tampered with his air conditioner. He says he’s been poisoned.”

____

A.J. found his friend in tears on his front stoop. He was unshaven and drenched in sweat.

“They’ve been in my house,” Ted said as A.J. approached. “It’s not safe to talk.”

Someone had released poison gas through his air conditioning system. He felt nauseated and lightheaded. His dog, Daisy, had been having seizures.

The dog appeared fine to A.J., but he agreed to call a friend who owns a heating and cooling repair business. “I know this sounds crazy, but could you come check this out?”

Soon Ted’s mother and his stepfather, Ward Phelps, arrived from Newport News. They convinced Ted it was safe to go back inside.

A large painting had been removed from a wall in the living room and was lying on the floor next to a pile of batteries, stripped from every device in the house. Light bulbs had been pulled from their sockets and tossed into a trash bag. Papers were strewn about.

Ted’s friends and parents persuaded him to go to a hospital. They told him he should have his blood tested in case he had been poisoned.

When Ted realized they had taken him to the psychiatric ward of Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital, he panicked.

“I’m not staying here,” he said, raising his voice.

He was clearly not well, but his family didn’t believe they could prove that he was a threat to himself or others – the state’s requirement for having someone involuntarily committed.

They left the hospital around 4 a.m. and dropped Ted off at his house.

The voices were waiting.

____

The whispers would begin the moment he opened his eyes each morning.

“He’s awake.”

“Why are you still alive?”

“Why don’t you kill yourself, you loser?”

It started as a single voice that summer, and then there were three, and then dozens. The deafening chorus filled his head, obscuring the line between imagination and reality.

“They’re watching you, Ted.”

“They’ve got cameras in the light bulbs.”

“They’re coming for you.”

They were the voices of sailors from his old command, friends from years back, and strangers.

“Why don’t you just die already?”

“They’re all in on it.”

“You can’t trust anybody.”

Ted had begun to believe them.

____

The grass grew long outside Ted’s house that summer. He rarely left the home, and when he did, his behavior was alarming.

He came to A.J. in tears one August afternoon, claiming someone had broken in and trashed his house.

“They were looking for this,” Ted said, holding up a padlocked backpack and refusing to say what was inside. “They came looking for it, but they didn’t get it.”

Days later, when Ted told him he feared the culprits might be coming back, A.J. let him borrow a shotgun overnight – a questionable decision, he realized in hindsight.

The bizarre moments were punctuated by flashes of clarity, making it difficult for A.J. and others to know what was real and what wasn’t.

In September, Ted returned from a trip to visit his brother in Maryland with somber news. His mother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A.J. embraced him.

Two days later, Ted was threatening to kick down his door.

The pounding startled the baby awake. Genie shrieked. A.J. rubbed his eyes and checked the time on his phone: 7 a.m.

Ted was out front, shouting.

“Get down here!”

A.J. stepped outside and sat down on the steps, hoping his posture would calm the situation.

Ted jumped back.

“What did you do? I’ll give you one chance to admit what you did!”

Ted’s eyes had the distant, confused look that A.J. had grown accustomed to. He suggested Ted get some sleep.

Ted lowered his voice: “How did you do it? Now my mom doesn’t have cancer.”

A.J. stood up. “What are you talking about?”

Ted charged at him with clenched fists. Watching from inside, Genie grabbed a phone and prepared to dial 911.

“Just go home, Ted,” A.J. said, resolving that he wouldn’t be the first to throw a punch.

Ted relented.

“As long as you live in this cul-de-sac,” he said, backing into the street, “I’m going to make your life a living hell.”

The neighbors haven’t spoken to each other since.

____

A.J. was pulling out of the driveway the Saturday before Thanksgiving last year when he noticed his car’s rear window had been shattered. Someone had thrown a ratchet through the glass.

A.J.’s first thought: Ted. But he wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.

That night, just before midnight, Ted came pounding again.

“A.J., get out here! I’m going to kick your ass!”

A.J. glanced at the gun he keeps by his bed, and then at his cellphone. He picked up the phone and called the police. The next day, he filed a disturbing-the-peace complaint and secured a temporary restraining order.

It didn’t keep Ted away.

Five days later, A.J. and his neighbors awoke to find their houses and cars marked with white spray paint. No words, just random, incoherent markings on vinyl siding, windshields and fenders.

The residents believed they knew who was responsible, but they needed proof. That afternoon, a few of them installed home security cameras, hiding them behind Christmas decorations.

Genie sat awake for hours that night watching the live surveillance feed on her laptop. Just after 1 a.m., a man appeared in the frame, marching toward her house carrying something in his right hand.

Was it a gun? No, it was spray paint – black this time. She watched Ted cover his beloved cul-de-sac in dark swirls.

The next day, after police arrested him at home, they searched for evidence linking him to the earlier vandalism.

Investigators found a note scribbled on a piece of paper hanging on the refrigerator.

It was a list of names, and next to them, sinister plans. Among those named were neighbors, an ex-girlfriend and an eye doctor. Ted, it seemed, had been planning to vandalize their houses nightly. Beside some of the names, he had noted his intention to burn cars and homes.

The harshest threat, though, was reserved for the person he loved the most.

Next to Mom, he had scribbled, “Death.

____

Ted appeared dejected as a bailiff led him into a Virginia Beach courtroom in April, some five months after his arrest. He wore an orange jumpsuit and shackles around his ankles and wrists.

As he entered, a class of high school students filed into the gallery to get a look at their justice system in action. A.J. walked in behind them and sat near the back.

Ted’s lawyer, Arthur Ermlich, rose and told the judge that his client had suffered a psychotic break the previous fall and was not in control of his actions.

“When I met Mr. Olsen at the jail, I knew something very serious was going on inside his head.”

Ted had spent the first three months after his arrest confined to a section of the jail reserved for inmates suffering from mental illnesses. There, his condition went untreated.

In other parts of the country, Ted might have been brought before a veterans court, a program designed to steer troubled vets toward treatment before proceeding with prosecution – an acknowledgement that their military service may have cost them their sanity.

But there are no veterans courts in Virginia, home to one of the nation’s largest military populations.

In jail, the voices that had driven Ted to lash out at his neighbors had grown louder and meaner. They told him to kill himself. He wanted to.

Finally, a bed opened at a state psychiatric hospital in Williamsburg. Doctors there confirmed that Ted had suffered a mental break stemming from PTSD and depression. Weeks of therapy and medication helped clear the noise in his head and set him on a path toward recovery.

They referred him to Poplar Springs Hospital, a private facility in Petersburg with specialized treatments for service members with mental disorders. Ted was three weeks into the hospital’s monthlong program when he was notified that Tricare had pulled financial support for the treatment.

He paid several thousand dollars out of pocket to continue the program a few more days before Virginia Beach deputies arrived with handcuffs and returned him to jail.

That day in court, Ted looked to see whether his mother was seated among the high school students, but he knew she wouldn’t be there. By then, the cancer had spread, and she was too weak to leave the house.

The judge spent a few minutes reading the state’s mental evaluation before accepting Ted’s plea – not guilty by reason of insanity.

His lawyer explained that he would need to return to a state hospital for another round of evaluations and likely would be released soon thereafter.

Two weeks later, with Ted still in jail awaiting transfer, his lawyer came for an unexpected weekend visit.

He told his client he had some bad news.

It was about his mother.

Days later, friends, neighbors and family members from out of state filled the pews of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Yorktown.

Their voices echoed through the sanctuary as they sang.

“The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”

Before preaching a homily about spiritual restoration, the priest called out the names of Mary Olsen’s dearest family members, gathered in the front row. Then he named one who wasn’t there.

A judge had denied a request for temporary release; the sheriff had refused to provide an escort.

Ted lay in his cell that day with tears in his eyes, staring at white cinder block walls, wishing he could fall asleep.

____

He didn’t get many visitors in jail, but when he did, Ted liked to talk about his house and plans for when he returned. When this was all over, he’d say, he was going to have a cookout and invite everyone – A.J. and all the other neighbors.

Things would go back to the way they were before he snapped. They’d all be relaxing in his hot tub, drinks in hand, looking back on everything and laughing.

The daydream helped distract him from reality.

It helped him cope in the wake of his mother’s death, and again when he learned that his lawyer had been forced to drop the case because he’d had his law license suspended for misleading another client.

Ted clung to the fantasy for weeks, even as he remained locked up some three months after being found not guilty.

In July, he was back in court with a new lawyer. The state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services had endorsed a conditional release plan that required him to live with his stepfather, Ward, in Newport News and receive daily psychiatric treatment at the Hampton VA Medical Center.

For the time being, he would be allowed to visit his home on Loveland Lane only if Ward accompanied him.

On his first night out – more than nine months after his arrest – Ted sat awake at Ward’s house, down the hall from the room where his mother had died. He wished he was at his own place instead.

Across the street from Ted’s house in Virginia Beach, Genie Sanders sat up in bed. Something was beeping downstairs.

She knew Ted had been released that day. Had he come for them? Did he blame them for missing his mother’s funeral?

She shook her husband out of bed. A.J. grabbed a flashlight and headed downstairs.

It was the smoke alarm, chirping because it needed new batteries.

____

A week later, while Ward sat inside reading magazines, Ted pushed a mower across his lawn for the first time in a year. This felt like freedom to him.

Next-door neighbor Cita Belasco waved and invited Ted to come inside.

“Get in here, jailbird,” she teased.

Ted had spray painted her car the previous November. After his arrest, he told investigators that she was an undercover Pakistani terrorist. Cita, who is Mexican, laughed when a prosecutor called to share that detail.

“Then you know he’s sick,” she had said. “Get him some help.”

Ted sat down beside his neighbor on her couch and apologized for the trouble he caused her.

“I was never mad at you, Ted,” Cita said. “Not for one minute of this whole thing. You weren’t well.”

Ted wishes others on Loveland Lane shared her perspective.

He wasn’t there when some of them discussed selling their houses and moving after the nice guy from across the street started throwing tools through car windows.

He doesn’t realize that when he finally petitions the court for permission to return home for good sometime next year, some of his neighbors plan to argue that he should never be allowed back.

He doesn’t know that Genie no longer feels safe when she’s home alone, or that she sometimes reaches for a handgun when she hears a strange sound.

A.J. thinks his wife might be overreacting, but he doesn’t blame her. If it were just him, he says, he’d give Ted another shot, maybe even bury the hatchet over a beer. But he has a wife and a child to consider.

“My responsibility is to them. If they can’t live in peace with Ted across the street, then neither can I.”

After Ted finished trimming the grass, he stored the mower in the garage, locked the front door and drove away with Ward following behind.

Across the street, one of his neighbors unlocked her door and breathed a sigh of relief.

____

This became routine.

Neighbors would watch through cracked blinds each time Ted returned with Ward, usually for a few hours at a time.

Then, one weekend in September, Ted came alone.

His truck was back in its old space. It was there again the next day, and the day after. Daisy, his dog, ran free, playing again in her old yard. Ted even posted a message online suggesting he might throw a party on the back patio.

It was almost like in the fantasy.

But this wasn’t the same place he had grown to love a decade ago – the one he thought about all those months in jail.

A police officer came on the third day. He knocked and waited. Ted didn’t answer.

Minutes after the officer left, the home security cameras on Loveland Lane captured Ted once again, this time fleeing his home.

He hadn’t bothered anyone, he thought later, after driving away. He would apologize for everything that happened last year if they would just give him the chance.

What kind of a person would treat a neighbor like this? He suspects one of them poured sugar into his truck’s gas tank while he was locked up. It’s as if they have it in for him.

Thinking about it makes him angry.

Why can’t they understand?

They’ve got nothing to fear.

He’s better now.

Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949, mike.hixenbaugh@pilotonline.com

____

About the reporting

The writer was present for several of the scenes described in this story. Other scenes were reconstructed based on home security footage, court records and a series of interviews with Ted Olsen, residents of Loveland Lane, Ward Phelps, former service members and lawyers.

 

 

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot
© December 16, 2013

VIRGINIA BEACH

Thomas Hudner’s boots were packed with snow. He had lost feeling in his hands and face. And he was running out of time.

hunderAs the sun dipped toward the mountainous North Korean horizon 63 years ago, Hudner tried one last time to pull the Navy’s first black fighter pilot from the crumpled wreckage of his downed airplane.

He had a choice to make. He could either stay with his unconscious wingman and face certain death from the cold, or he could leave on the rescue helicopter, which had to depart before nightfall, and try to come back after sunrise.

Hudner put his hand on his partner’s shoulder, leaned in close, and spoke the last words he would ever say to Jesse LeRoy Brown.

“Jesse, we’re going to go get some better equipment to get you out, so hang in there. We’ll be back.”

Six decades later, Hudner is still trying to keep his promise.

For most of Conor O’Neil’s childhood in Concord, Mass., he knew Mr. Hudner only as the friendly old man who lived down the street.

It wasn’t until he grew up, left home and became a Navy fighter pilot himself that O’Neil realized that Capt. Hudner was a legend.

President Harry S. Truman had presented him with the Medal of Honor. A naval aviation award bears his name. The Navy is in the process of building the Thomas Hudner, a guided missile destroyer.

Lt. O’Neil, now a 27-year-old F/A-18 Hornet pilot at Oceana Naval Air Station, asked Hudner earlier this year whether he’d be interested in visiting the master jet base.

Hudner doesn’t often pass up a chance to share his story. This week, the 89-year-old veteran shuffled into the Oceana Officers’ Club with his Medal of Honor draped around his neck.

The beer-drinking crowd grew silent as he walked slowly to the front of the room, grabbed a microphone and began to speak.

He talked about his decision to become a pilot in 1948 and the day he checked in at Strike Fighter Squadron 32 at a Navy airfield in Rhode Island.

Among the first people he met was Jesse Brown, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper who had recently broken naval aviation’s color barrier.

Brown, who had endured racial discrimination throughout flight school, seemed unsure as Hudner reached out to shake his hand in the squadron locker room.

“Jesse and I never got to be close friends, but we were good squadron mates,” Hudner said. “And as it turns out, we often flew together.”

That was the case on Dec. 4, 1950, six months after the start of the Korean War. Hudner and Brown were among six fighters who took off from the aircraft carrier Leyte on a reconnaissance mission over North Korea.

As they soared above snowcapped mountains, Hudner noticed something streaming from the back of Brown’s F4U Corsair, a single-engine prop plane. Was it fuel?

Brown’s plane, they would learn later, had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. He got on the radio: “I’m losing power. Can’t maintain altitude.”

He crashed the plane into an open area, hitting the ground with such force that Hudner assumed Brown had been killed.

Hudner circled back around as the squadron’s executive officer, flying with them that day, radioed a nearby Marine base to request a rescue helicopter.

As Hudner flew over the crash site, he saw that Brown had opened the cockpit and slid back the canopy. He must have survived the impact, but smoke was billowing from the engine.

“My God,” Hudner thought. “If that spreads into a fire and reaches the cockpit…”

Without asking for permission, Hudner made one more pass over the site, dumped his rockets and ammunition, then crash-landed his plane in the snowy clearing.

“I intended to slide onto the ground and just… sort of softly land,” Hudner said, drawing laughter from the otherwise hushed room of Oceana pilots. “The ground, it turns out, was like concrete.”

Hudner ran through 2 feet of snow to reach Brown’s plane. The downed aviator was shaken up but was still conscious and speaking.

“Help me, Tom. We’ve got to figure out a way of getting out of here,” he said.

Hudner piled snow into the smoking engine to stop it from catching fire, then struggled to climb up the sloped wing to reach the cockpit. Brown’s bloody leg was pinned inside. Hudner pulled a scarf out of his flight suit and wrapped it around Brown’s freezing hands.

“We’re going to figure this out,” Hudner said, trying to sound calm.

There was little he could do. The wing was slippery, and Hudner couldn’t apply leverage. Even after the Marine helicopter pilot arrived, the two men could not pry Brown from the wreckage.

In desperation, Brown asked them to cut off his leg. Without proper medical equipment, they knew that would kill him.

They struggled in vain to pull him out, even after Brown lost consciousness.

Hudner told of the agonizing decision to leave his wingman and his struggle to persuade superiors to let him go back.

When U.S. planes flew over the crash site the next day, they saw that enemy fighters had stripped Brown’s trapped body of his clothes.

The following day, the commander of the Leyte ordered four Corsairs to bomb the crash site to prevent the planes and Brown’s remains from falling into enemy hands. The aviators recited the Lord’s Prayer over the radio as the wreckage burned.

That spring, Brown’s wife, Daisy, was at the White House when Truman placed the Medal of Honor around Hudner’s neck.

While sharing his recollections with the younger pilots this week, Hudner paused frequently to gather his thoughts. His hand trembled as he gripped the microphone.

Hudner had been asked to tell his own story, but this is how he ended it:

“Well, that’s the story of Jesse Brown. Does anybody have any questions about him?”

Young pilots swarmed Hudner after he finished speaking. They posed for photos and asked him for his autograph.

A few wondered aloud whether they would have the courage to do what he did.

Hudner wanted them to know that he hasn’t forgotten his promise to Brown.

This summer, he returned to North Korea with a team of researchers to look for Brown’s remains. Heavy monsoons during the 10-day trip prevented the team from attempting to find the site.

“We’re going to go back,” Hudner told a young Hornet pilot, after autographing a piece of notebook paper. “We said we’d come back.”