The spark of an ancient memory, vivid in all its details, made the corners of Mahoney’s mouth rise with a smile as he mentioned the name ‘Donnie.’
“We were carefree, and we thought we were invincible,” Maj. Brian Mahoney, an instructor in the Department of Systems Engineering at West Point, said recalling his unprompted adventures as a young officer with his close friend, USMA Class of 1988 graduate Donaldson Tillar.
Mahoney was unaware, during his youth, how the short yet remarkable life of Tillar would forever change the lives of the people who knew him. Imperfect in his manner, personable with people he cared for and passionate about his craft as a burgeoning aviator, Tillar always knew how to play and work hard, Mahoney explained.
In 1987 and 1988, during the end of their tenure at West Point, Mahoney and Tillar got to know each other and establish a friendship. Both men were eager to graduate and become officers. There was also a desire to carouse and run free, and as soon as the two were commissioned as second lieutenants, their adventure began and the revelry commenced, Mahoney said.
The young duo packed their things, got in their cars, and drove from West Point to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Tillar, Mahoney and 20 other officers from the graduating class got on an Air Force cargo plane, with hardly any money, and flew from the east coast to California, Mahoney said.
“When you are flying under ‘space available’ on an Air Force cargo plane, you’re flying to wherever the plane lands,” Mahoney said. “We got on another Air Force cargo plane that took us to Honolulu, Hawaii where we stood for two weeks.”
Mahoney added the two celebrated their graduation and reflected on their experience at West Point and the next chapter in their journeys as both men were scheduled to attend flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama. The two weeks had passed—the celebration was over. When the two returned back from Hawaii, their flight took them to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
“When we got back, Donnie and I needed to get our cars at McGuire Air Force Base and we had to hitchhike,” Mahoney said. “Back in those days there was no such thing as Uber, there weren’t any cellphones to pull up Google maps — we had our suitcases and duffle bags and stood at the front gate of Dover Air Force Base and we had to stick our thumbs out and try to get a ride to McGuire.”
Mahoney added it was a hot day in June as the two had their thumbs out hoping a car would stop. A young woman, driving a station wagon, saw the two at the street corner by the gate and decided to give them a ride under one condition.
“The young lady was immediately sweet on Donnie. He was a handsome young man,” Mahoney said laughing, at the memory. “The girl said, ‘get in’ and she wanted Donnie to sit up front and it turned out she was a single mother and she had a little baby in the backseat. I got to sit next to this little baby while Tillar smiled and played googly eyes with her as she drove us up to New Jersey.”
Soon after, the duo set their sights for flight school at Fort Rucker, where they met retired Col. Robert Bowden.
Bowden graduated from a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps unit down at Texas and got commissioned at the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps. Later, he would spend three months in the company of Tillar and Mahoney along with many other West Point graduates at Fort Rucker, Bowden said.
“I met Tillar and all of these West Point folks when my class started,” Bowden said. “I would say that, probably, 90% of our flight class had guys and gals from West Point. I immediately developed a great respect and relationship with all of them.”
After three to four months of flight school training, Tillar and Bowden were assigned as partners or ‘stick buddies’ as it is more commonly known, Bowden added.
“It was over the course of several months that (Tillar) and I flew together every day, practicing our skills flying and that particular type of training challenges your mental will and I would say that each of the three phases (in flight school) are exceptionally challenging, but Tillar was 100% committed to and dedicated to the aviation craft and we developed a great sense of camaraderie and trust in one another during the course.”
For Tillar, it seemed that everything flight school challenged him with, no matter what the aptitude or requirements were, he performed his flight assignments in a composed, well-executed fashion. Tillar had a talent and capability to withstand the mental pressures of the task, Bowden said.
“He was far less stressed than I was when it was my turn in the seat. So, I always admired that, I respected that and aspired to having that kind of mindset,” Bowden said. “Ultimately, of course, we all achieve that mindset throughout our life it’s just a matter of people getting there at a different point in time. It was just super humbling to have him as a partner and co-pilot.”
After completing his flight training, Tillar was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. He would soon be called to serve his nation during the Gulf War, where he would make the ultimate sacrifice.
On Feb. 27, 1991, during the last day of Operation Desert Storm, Tillar’s Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq. Tillar was the only West Point graduate to be killed in combat operations during Desert Storm, Mahoney said.
It was during the weekend in Dallas when Mahoney found out, he added. He contacted his parents through a payphone and that’s when they delivered the news.
“I called my folks and they said ‘we have some bad news,’” Mahoney said. “That was in early March of ‘91. I was devastated because you know the Gulf War only took about five days, and if you were in the United States at that time you were high-fiving everybody because we were just mopping up, we were rolling through the Iraqi army and Kuwait with very little casualties. But then my whole worldview changed when one of the very few casualties was Donnie — I was heartbroken.”
Bowden was at his house in 1991 in San Antonio, when he found out about Tillar’s demise. Throughout his young life, Bowden wasn’t always balanced physically and mentally, but after the death of Tillar, he made it his mission for the past 30 years to find that balance using his experience with Tillar and what he learned from him as way to hone in on that balance, Bowden said.
“What I learned from Donnie that I carry with me to this day is to find the joy and the humanity in everyone and in every experience. That in and of itself is anathema to the predominance of society today, where we find the negative, we pick on the little things that bother us and if you spent time listening to or reading about Donnie, you'll hear how naturally it appeared that he would find the positive aspects of the moment, the positives out of the conversation, the positive in you,” Bowden said. “It isn’t that he didn’t acknowledge or wasn’t willing to appreciate that there was negative there. It was that he would rather have incentivize the positive, or maybe seeing things positively was just so innate in him that he did it naturally, but it caused you to feel better and act better and live better.”