By Heather Clark, Fort Campbell CourierNovember 24, 2015
When in the journalism business, one acclimates to the fact that tragedy can befall a community without a moment's notice. It is an unpleasant piece of reality that comes with the profession. But when that national tragedy makes its way to a personal level, it can change things completely, as two 101st Soldiers and Fort Campbell Courier writers found out in December of 1985.
It was then when they learned that Maj. Michael Lawrence -- an officer in the Public Affairs Office and a man they had worked with, was one of the 248 troops aboard Arrow Air Flight 1285, the flight that crashed in Gander, Newfoundland, as it carried Soldiers home from a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai.
While fellow Soldiers and grieving Families reeled with the news of the accident, the two men scrambled to deal with the loss of not only an exemplary superior officer, but a warm Family man and amazing friend.
Something to laugh about
As a young Spec 4 with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, USAG, one of the first impressions Bill Powell had of (then) Capt. Lawrence was that he was a boisterous aviator who resembled an "XXL Dale Earnhardt." But it was not long before he learned about the man Lawrence truly was.
"He was just a great, friendly, jovial, great-big guy," Powell said. "He looked like a rough customer, but he was so friendly. And he belonged in public affairs."
Powell said Lawrence got along with everybody. Though divided by rank, the two men discovered an unlikely bond one day over a lunch break. "We figured out that we both liked old-time comedy," Powell said. "We liked Vaudeville, and we loved Abbott and Costello."
Lawrence would bring in cassettes of old Abbott and Costello routines, which the two Soldiers would listen to during lunch.
"He had this great big conversion van, and we'd sit out behind the offices during our lunch hour and listen to those tapes and just roll laughing, even though we'd heard them over and over," Powell recalled.
A time for tears
As Soldiers prepared to depart for the Sinai as part of the Multinational Force and Observers peacekeeping mission, Powell said that Fort Campbell began to see a few changes around the installation.
"They issued those guys the desert camouflage and the peacekeeper beret," he said. "And back at that time, you rarely saw berets and you did not see desert camo. So any time you'd go to the PX, you knew everybody that was getting ready to go for peacekeeping duty. They were the only ones on post that looked like that."
Among the desert camouflage-clad Soldiers was his friend.
"I was real happy for him," Powell said. "I thought it was an honorable thing to be doing."
At the end of his mission, Lawrence and 247 other Soldiers boarded a plane that would take them back to Fort Campbell in time to spend Christmas with their loved ones. When tragedy struck in Gander, Newfoundland, the entire Fort Campbell community was in a state of disbelief -- including Powell.
"I believe I was coming out of our barracks on post," he said. "I was on the stairwell, and somebody said their plane had gone down at Gander. I just remember being in total shock and saying 'No, that's not possible. I'm supposed to see him real soon.' Then I was thinking about the loss I was feeling, and about those other guys I saw in desert camo at the PX. It was a lot to get used to -- a lot to wrap my head around."
Though rocked by the news, Powell had to tend to his duties. With Fort Campbell suffering one of its largest losses, the eyes of the nation were upon the community. As a public affairs specialist, he was right in the middle of it.
"That was the first time I'd had someone close to me taken," Powell said. "But I also learned something that's like a life motto -- you adapt, you overcome and you complete the mission. I was so busy with the influx of media, I really learned what adapt and overcome means."
A friend and a mentor
Joe Hirsch was a Soldier assigned to the Courier through Division HHC when he met Lawrence. Like Powell, Hirsch found the officer to be a great leader, but also friendly and approachable.
"Major Lawrence was one of my bosses and certainly a good guy," he said. "I had a girlfriend at the time who worked at the photo lab. We babysat for his kids. Mike was a Family man. He loved that Family of his."
After Lawrence deployed to the Sinai, Hirsch was given the opportunity to take on a new duty assignment on the West Coast.
"I wasn't really looking to go anywhere," he said. "Campbell was a great duty assignment. But I got a call saying a Soldier out of the Presidio in San Francisco had Family back at Campbell, and would I be interested in a swap."
Single and excited about the prospect of new adventures, Hirsch agreed to take the Presidio assignment. He stayed in touch with Lawrence, who sent him an Multinational Force and Observance key fob as a small souvenir.
"He gave me that right before I left for the Presidio," Hirsch recalled. "He knew it'd be a while before we got to see each other again."
Hirsch had only been in San Francisco a few months when the tragedy took place. Immediately he began scrambling to find a way to get back to Fort Campbell.
"I begged, borrowed and stole to get anybody to listen," he said. "My boss -- a little bit reluctantly -- told me to go. I hopped on a military hop flight out of San Francisco."
When the plane landed in St. Louis, it was grounded because of inclement weather, leaving Hirsch scrambling once again.
"So I rented a car," he said. "I was way too young to rent a car and I lied about my age. I went zooming down there. As a matter of fact, I crossed the border into Kentucky and I got a speeding ticket."
In the early hours of morning, Hirsch found himself at the home Lawrence shared with his wife, Portia.
"I just sort of landed on Portia's doorstep and said 'I don't know what to do or say,'" Hirsch said. "She said 'First of all, get in here; it's all going to be OK."
Although he went back to Fort Campbell to be a source of strength for the Family, Hirsch said Lawrence's wife actually became a source of strength for him.
"Mike's wife was just rock-solid through the whole thing," he said. "She was so put together. She was and probably is that strong today."
The next day, Hirsch woke up to a knock at the door. When he opened it, he was standing face-to-face with Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh.
"I was standing there in a T-shirt and blue jeans," he said. "He was going around to every single Family [who] lost a Soldier and was making a personal visit. I'll never forget it."
It was a situation that Hirsch recalled as "beyond the scope as a 21-year-old." Shortly after the Gander tragedy, the nation was rocked by the crash of the Challenger space shuttle. By June of 1986, Hirsch was outprocessing from the Army.
A world away, but not forgotten
Thirty years later, life is different for the two former Soldiers and Courier writers. Wanting the stable life in which he could raise a Family, Powell went back to his hometown of Ferdinand, Indiana. Having kept the writer's spark, the husband and father of three has been a staff writer for the Dubois County Herald for 28 years.
Hirsch left the West Coast for his native Missouri.
"I've been married 18 years now, got a couple of kids," he said. "I've been in the commercial sign business for many years."
Although many years have passed since Powell and Hirsch lost their friend and mentor, the memories are alive and well. Any time Hirsch wants to remember his time with Lawrence, he simply looks at the key fob.
"He was an example for me," Hirsch said. "That's what I remember the most -- just how well he represented the Army, the Family life and then had time to make a friend. The keychain reminds me of all that. The crash and all, that's in the history books, and it was only a brief moment of the time I got to spend with him. I carry the keychain to this day because he went out of his way to give me a little memento of his being in the Sinai."
Powell keeps in touch with the Fort Campbell community via Facebook and veterans groups. He said the way Fort Campbell honors and remembers all of its fallen is inspirational.
"When they made the [Gander] park, I thought it was a fantastic remembrance," Powell said. "I'm greatly heartened by the yearly observances -- not just for those lost at Gander, but other observances as well. All of us veterans from the 101st who keep in touch, we see what the post does for Memorial Day, for Veterans Day and we commiserate with what's going on. It's a nice little extended Family to keep in touch with."
"It's always meant a huge amount to me that it's never going to be forgotten," Hirsch added. "That cold winter morning … the stories of the people on that tarmac waiting on their people to come home. It was one of Campbell's biggest losses. It's extremely honorable to be a very small part of that -- to be alive and to remember through our actions."
Editor's Note: This article is the third in a series leading up to the 30th anniversary of the Gander tragedy in December.