By Pfc. Paige Behringer, 1st BCT Public Affairs, 1st Cav. Div. March 26, 2014
FORT HOOD, Texas -- After 25 years, one Soldier was afforded the opportunity of a lifetime as he flew among clouds above a vast desert in a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, looking out the window for something near to his heart at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., March 2.
During his unit's rotation to NTC, 1st Lt. Robert Wilson III searched an area known as Refrigerator Gap for the site of a 25 year-old helicopter crash.
The goal of the search wasn't simply to locate the site of a training accident involving the same type of helicopter carrying him over the windy desert that day, but to find the memorial to someone the Austin, Texas, native barely knew -- his father.
"I was always kind of interested in seeing (the site)," said Wilson, a platoon leader assigned to Company D of the 2nd "Lancer" Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st "Ironhorse" Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. "I didn't know if I'd have the opportunity."
When Wilson was only 9 months old, his father, 1st Lt. Robert "Rob" Wilson II, was killed in a training accident on July 22, 1989, along with five other Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division.
During Rob's rotation to NTC, the helicopter he was aboard nose-dived, striking a large boulder with enough force to leave gouges on its surface.
Rob, a native of Dumfries, Va., was serving as an intelligence officer at the time of the accident, but he began his Army career as an aviation officer at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
He met his wife and Wilson's mother, Darlene "Cookie" Wilson, a retired Army aviation officer, when they were classmates at the USMA. After college, Rob and Cookie began dating and were married in April 1987.
Cookie, now an associate professor at the University of Texas and emergency room nurse, said the accident was never a secret to their son. She would even tell him during thunderstorms that his father was bowling up in heaven.
Although the accident left Wilson without a father, his grandparents provided father figures for him to look up to, because they were a big part of his life. Wilson visited Rob's parents every summer growing up.
"My father was almost like his father," Cookie said. "My parents considered him one of their children."
Cookie said Wilson is the spitting image of Rob, adding that their pictures are almost identical.
"I'm told frequently by my mom and by his parents that I'm very similar to how he was," Wilson said. "It gives me a pretty clear picture of how he was as a person, which I never really got to experience."
Cookie said Wilson resembles Rob in many ways, describing him as quiet, driven and organized with the same temperament as his father.
"(My son) even kicks the soccer ball the same way his dad did with his foot turned in," Cookie said.
Cookie recalled one difficult moment for Wilson growing up. When he was in the eighth grade, she was called back to active duty for the invasion of Iraq.
"(My son) looked at me and said, 'The Army has already taken my father. Why do they have to take my mother?'" Cookie said. "I think that was the hardest thing in my life, and I looked at him and said, 'Someday you will understand. You will do the same.'"
Approximately eight years later, Wilson joined the Army as an armor officer, choosing the path of many family members before him.
Wilson said he believes there is inherent danger involved with NTC, but he wasn't fazed by it.
"I was wary about (NTC), but at the same time, it was the same danger as pretty much anywhere we go," Wilson explained.
"I think I was more worried about (my son going to) NTC than if he told me he was being deployed to Afghanistan, because that?'s where I lost his father," Cookie said.
Although his mother was concerned, Wilson knew she had faith in him.
"She gets a little bit worried like all moms do ... but she was also in the Army and understands how the Army works," Wilson said. "She knows me and believes in my ability to do things correctly and safely."
Two years after Rob's accident, Cookie was a company commander at Fort Polk, La., and had the opportunity to visit the crash site when her unit went to NTC.
Six white crosses, each named for the Soldiers whose lives were lost in the accident, marked the site as well as some evidence of the crash.
"I walked around, and I picked up a couple (of) little pieces of the aircraft, and I just felt at peace," Cookie said, her voice cracking. "For me it was closure."
Cookie said Wilson?'s rotation to NTC presented an opportunity for him to visit the site and possibly resolve feelings she may not know about.
"I felt (Rob) was with me there," Cookie said, on the verge of tears. "I thought maybe my son could feel that as well."
An email to Lt. Col. Cain Baker, the 1-227th battalion commander, turned out to be the opportunity Cookie hoped for.
"He wrote me back three months later, which to me was like divine intervention, because it was the week that (my son) had already gone to NTC," Cookie explained.
Baker, deployed in Afghanistan at the time, took care of the coordination to ensure Wilson was able to visit the location.
"(My son's) leadership was so amazing," Cookie said. "They embraced my request and took my son under their wing to get that mission done … It just gave me faith in today's Army leaders … at the end of the day they're not only leaders, but they?'re kind, compassionate fathers and husbands."
Wilson was in a meeting when Lt. Col. Carter Price, the Lancer battalion commander, approached him asking if he would be interested in visiting the site of his father's accident.
"That was definitely an example of good leadership," Wilson said. "(It showed) that the chain of command supports their Soldiers and honors Soldiers that have fallen. It was good to see that sacrifice and service (are) valued in this organization."
The day Wilson, Price, and a small group of Soldiers flew to the site at NTC, it was cloudy and cold, but he was able to walk the same area his mother walked years before.
"I wasn't really sure how to feel," Wilson said. "I just kind of went in with an open mind about it to try and absorb everything."
He looked for the boulder struck by the helicopter 25 years ago, and believes he found it. Unfortunately he was unable to locate the memorial of crosses, suspecting two and a half decades of unpredictable weather may be the cause.
"It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience," Wilson said. "I'll never get that opportunity again."
Feeling his visit would have been impossible without his rotation to NTC, Wilson said he believes he was able to get some closure about the accident.
"I want to say that Price, his battalion commander, I think he walked up and down that mountain with my son," Cookie said. "You know how lieutenants think of battalion commanders; they're just this hardcore leader. I really think he felt, my son felt, Price walking him not only as a mentor and a leader but as a father. I can?'t thank him enough for doing that for my son."
Wilson and Cookie said they plan to visit the Fort Hood memorial dedicated to Rob and the Soldiers involved in the helicopter accident to remember, honor and pay respects to those fallen, loved and missed fathers, brothers and sons.