After 25 years, one soldier was afforded the opportunity of a lifetime as he flew among clouds above a vast desert in a Black Hawk helicopter, looking out the window for something near to his heart at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., on 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-native barely knew — his father.
“I was always kind of interested in seeing (the site),” said Wilson, a platoon leader with 2nd “Lancer” Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st 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 the elder Wilson’s rotation to NTC, the helicopter he was aboard nose-dived, striking a large boulder with enough force to leave gouges on its surface.
His widow, Darlene “Cookie” Wilson, a retired Army officer and 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.
Cookie Wilson said the younger Wilson resembles his father 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,” she said.
Cookie Wilson recalled one difficult moment for Robert 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?’” she 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.’”
About eight years later, Robert Wilson joined the Army as an armor officer, choosing the path of many family members before him.
Robert 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,” he said.
“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 Wilson said.
Although his mother was concerned, Robert 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,” he said. “She knows me and believes in my ability to do things correctly and safely.”
Two years after the crash, 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,” she said, her voice cracking. “For me it was closure.”
Cookie Wilson said her son’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 Wilson said, on the verge of tears. “I thought maybe my son could feel that as well.”
Through coordination with Robert Wilson’s chain of command and that of his father’s old unit, he was able to visit the crash site as well.
The day Robert Wilson 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,” he 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,” Robert Wilson said. “I’ll never get that opportunity again.”