She Will Never be Home For Christmas

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

In the Jemez Mountains of the Santa Fe National Forest, about three hours drive out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, at 8000 feet is a wonderful place called Rancho del Chaparral. It is the summer camp for the Chaparral Girl Scout Council of Albuquerque.

When the Colonel was stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque our daughter attended many Girl Scout functions at that camp. I came to like it so much that for three years I would spend weeks at a time volunteering my labor, helping the camp Ranger do needed maintenance. In return for my free labor I got to hike in the forest and watch elk walk past me in the evening, when all was quiet.

Prior to moving to New Mexico my daughter and I had done Civil War re-enacting and I had built a wooden handcart. I used the handcart to simulate removing the wounded and dead from a re-enacting battlefield. On Kirtland AFB I kept it out in my front yard with a US flag posted on it. On the flag in small print were the names of veterans who I knew were deployed.

One day while working in my front year an Air Force rescue helicopter flew low over my home. I looked at it and my handcart at the same time and realized that the rescue helicopter was the modern day version of the venerable old handcart. I went into the house to write a poem titled "The Handcart Boys." It was about the men and women who risked their lives in helicopters to bring our injured and dead troops out of harms way.

Days after I wrote that poem the Air Force lost a Pave Hawk rescue helicopter in Afghanistan. The co-pilot was from Belen, New Mexico (a few miles south of Albuquerque) and she had been a very active Girl Scout in her youth. She had spent many happy days camping at Rancho. I sent a copy of the poem to her minister who conducted the funeral. To my surprise it was used in the eulogy. I never knew Captain Tamara Long-Archuleta, USAF, but I have come to know her family.

One day while working at the camp an Air Force rescue aircraft flew over. It could have been Captain Tammy on a training flight, but it wasn't, she was gone. There is a large rock sticking out of the ground in a clearing at the camp. This is a landmark used by flight-for-life helicopter pilots to navigate by, if someone were seriously injured during camp.

I named it Rescue Rock and started working with the Girl Scouts to develop a memorial for Captain Tammy. This got me assigned to a year long planning committee and lots of hours of manual labor. The camp Ranger and I dug large boulders out of the side of the mountain to establish a thirty foot stone ring around Rescue Rock. A local LDS church group provided most of the back breaking labor and technical support. The council had a memorial stone carved and it was placed in front of Rescue Rock.

During the year long planning I got to know the parents of Captain Tammy, Richard and Cindy Long. Everybody thinks their child is special, but Captain Tammy was. She was a world class Karate champion. Distinguish college graduate, an Air Force officer & rescue pilot and a mother. She was supposed to be leaving Afghanistan in a few weeks and come home to be married.

She had wanted to be a rescue pilot since she was a little girl. She even developed a board game in school called "Rescue Princess." But this game was different, the Princess went out and risked her life to save, not be saved. This was what she was doing on her last mission, trying to rescue two injured Afghan children. She wanted to be a career Air Force officer and most likely would not be home in New Mexico for Christmas this year if she were still on active duty.

But now, Captain Tammy will never been home for Christmas. No Christmas Eve service at the little Methodist Church in Belen. No seeing the folks, no new husband and no young son to hold. She was a hero for her country, for her Air Force, for her family and most important for her son, but Captain Tammy will not be home for Christmas.

Remember your veterans, and whenever you can hold tight your active duty family members. They may not ever be home for Christmas again, so make the time count. Thank you Captain Tammy and for your family, I am so sorry.

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Copyright 2006 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.