Read more· MELISSA NANN BURKE'S EARLIER STORY: Fatal Flight: The crash that took Eric McColley's life includes an animated recreation of the helicopter crash in which Eric was killed
Feb 18, 2007 — After their 23-year-old son was killed, John E. and Susan McColley mostly sat anywhere but at home.
They hung out at the local American Legion post, ate at Eric's favorite Gettysburg restaurant and prepared to leave Adams County permanently for North Carolina's Outer Banks.
But try as they did to move on, Eric's new home kept bringing them back.
A year after his death, they have precisely timed the regular drives from the outskirts of Gettysburg to Quantico, Va., avoiding traffic.
U.S. Marine Sgt. Jonathan Eric McColley rests there among a white-capped sea of tombstones near the foot of a gentle slope. The rolling grounds of the cemetery are quiet, each section hugged by woods on one side and a black driveway on the other. Solitude rings, unlike the bustle of Arlington to the north.
Eric died with nine other service people Feb. 17, 2006, during a training mission. A crewman, Eric was aboard one of two heavy-lift helicopters that collided in midair and plunged into waters off the coast of Djibouti, in northeast Africa. He was 23.
John and Susan go to the cemetery and stare at the stone - white granite with black lettering - and the emotion comes in waves. It can feel like Eric's away on deployment until they drive through the cemetery gates. Then it's real.
“I can hear Eric yelling at us: 'Get a life. Go do something,'” Susan said, not taking her eyes from the marker. “I can hear him yelling at us.”
Eric's nephew, blond, 18-month-old Ethan, marches unsteadily uphill between the rows of graves, swiftly passes his uncle's spot in the lineup, stops with a jerk to examine the grass and moves on.
In some ways, Ethan is like Eric was as a child: Nary a look over his shoulder to see if someone's following behind. He's a bold, independent spirit with a keen eye for mischief.
They buried Eric on a blustery day in March.
Grass didn't grow atop the plot at first, and the McColleys suspected the wild turkeys roaming the cemetery picked off the seeds.
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Golf balls, a swizzle stick and a fake palm tree disappeared - items left at the grave don't last more than a couple weeks. Cemetery personnel remove “unauthorized” objects, but the McColleys worry it could be someone disrespecting sacred space.
By spring, tiny buds on the trees arrived and so did Eric's things from Africa, transported by van. Eric had driven a van in high school - a 1984 Ford on its second engine. Before he left for senior week in 2000, John helped Eric mount a 3-foot-high, homemade “shark fin” on the vehicle's roof. Eric drove with it at least until that summer's first Jimmy Buffett concert.
At their farmhouse in Straban Township, John and Susan rifled through the six plastic footlockers. They found scores of CDs and DVDs, an X-Box, a camera, a laptop and the hammock Eric rigged up wherever he was stationed. Among the items lay a black wooden rhinoceros in mid-stride, probably intended as a present. They don't know for whom.
One footlocker was stuffed with more than 100 T-shirts - mostly Grateful Dead and Buffett tour souvenirs.
They recalled Eric's comment after graduating from boot camp at Parris Island: He wanted a bumper sticker that read, “Parris Island University.”
They trademarked the phrase.
Eric's free spirit was contagious. People flocked to him because he made their sides ache laughing. In grade school, he picketed the playground, protesting new schoolyard rules.
He began growing his thick, red hair down to his elbows in middle school. In high school, it took three girls to twist it and stretch a swim cap over the hair knot for swim practice. He wore flip-flops and shorts into the winter months, adding wool socks as the weather required. He competed with a buddy for the most detentions in English class. He mountain biked, camped and earned the Eagle Scout rank.
College didn't appeal to him when the end of high school rolled around. Like his dad, he joined the Marines - maybe a leap for the stereotypical “hippie kid.” Not Eric, his friends said. He cut his hair and it was a fit:
“Motivated young sergeant with a can-do attitude. Recommended for promotion and long-term retention in the Marine Corps,” a superior wrote after Eric's deployment in Iraq.
“Conduct and professionalism is free of tarnish, both on and off duty. He leads his Marines with firmness, fairness and dignity,” another superior wrote.
He loved the Marines and took pride in doing his job. He volunteered for the deployment to Djibouti, a seaside nation bordered by Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and the Gulf of Aden. He told friends it would be “cake” - nothing like Iraq. After he arrived in October, he wrote home in an e-mail: “I can see the gulf if I walk 20 yards out the back of my tent. Looking forward to diving. . . . I find myself stopping and day dreaming about hiking and all the stuff.”
As usual, he spent his days in the flight equipment shop, keeping safety gear tested and flight-ready for the heavy-helicopter pilots and crews. He'd recently gotten approval to transfer jobs - a process he started in Iraq many months before. He'd begin training for the military police upon his return to the states. First, he re-enlisted.
“Well I did it,” he wrote home in January 2006. “Another 4 years, I am in this circus until Jan. 26, 2010. Sometime's I wonder if I know what I am doing. But at least I always have my looks to fall back on! Hope all is well with everyone.”
It was the last e-mail from Eric.
John had known the military would investigate the accident from the night Marines appeared on his step to say Eric was missing.
The report came in May, heavily redacted for national security and more than 750 pages long, and John had something to scream about.
Investigators said commanders' inadequate supervision and pilot error led to the collision.
“The chain of events . . . could have been broken at any place or time,” and the crash could have been avoided, Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, then commander of Marine Forces Central Command, wrote when signing off on the document.
The McColleys had imagined many a scenario that played out Feb. 17, 2006, but never this, a “comedy of errors,” John said. He struggled for months to learn how the Marines punished the officers responsible. He received some answers but might never know them all.
The shock of the report gradually faded, but not the anger.
Summer rolled around. On June 1, Eric would have been 24. It was a Thursday, so John and Susan headed for wing night at the Pike, Eric's favorite lounge.
In late July, John and Susan prepared to put their place of business, American Resin Casting in Biglerville, on the market. They started packing up their home property, a former dairy farm, for sale as well.
The McColleys planned to relocate to the Outer Banks as soon as they could. The move hadn't been planned for another five years, but Eric's death changed everything. They couldn't stay any longer.
They also couldn't ignore the anniversaries. In August, John and Susan felt pulled toward New River, the Marine Corps base in Jacksonville, N.C., where Eric had lived before leaving for Africa. They wanted to be with his Marine friends on Aug. 17, six months after the accident.
They toured Eric's squadron and met the commanding officer who took over for Lt. Col. Jeffrey P. Martinez, who was fired following the crash. They visited Eric's flight equipment shop, where co-workers had mounted a pictorial tribute to those lost six months before. One of the Marines gave them arm patches they'd had made, stitched in memory of the fallen.
At one meal, Eric's buddy, P.J. Lee, pulled down the neck of his T-shirt to reveal a tattoo on his chest: 2-17-06.
“He said, 'I couldn't think what else to do,'” John remembered.
Being surrounded by friends can sometimes make the time pass more quickly. But guilt soon follows the laughs.
John knows he's not the same person he was before. He sometimes worries how much is too much to tell even his close friends. “How much do they want to hear?” he said.
Some people just don't understand. “Or they don't take a minute to think about it. They don't put themselves in your shoes,” he said. “Some think you should be over it in a number of weeks.”
He and Susan, both in their 50s, attend meetings of a Compassionate Friends chapter, a support group for families dealing with the death of a child. They learned a family is considered “newly bereaved” for at least 2½ years after the death.
“It's a burden. A burden that can lay very heavily on people,” John said. “We can be very cheery but not for long.”
At the meetings, John compares himself to other parents. Unlike many of them, the McColleys are used to Eric's being absent at holidays - always on deployment or stuck at work without leave. But unlike some of the others, the McColleys can't easily visit the accident scene where Eric died. Djibouti is a half-world away.
Switching jobs or moving away are two major changes that bereaved parents might chase, believing “if we do this, we will feel better.” Probably not, grief counselors say.
But the McColleys no longer see life for themselves in Pennsylvania. North Carolina offers a new start. They'll be closer to Cheryl and Ethan in Hampton, Va.
But for the first time since moving to the area 30 years ago, the McColleys have more friends in Pennsylvania than near their old home in Maryland. Since Eric died, they've bonded with veterans and veterans' families at the local American Legion post. And a local man, Stan Clark, is helping raise funds to establish a scholarship at Gettysburg Area High School in Eric's name.
The McColleys also established a charity, the Sgt. Mac Foundation, which will use Eric's nickname and the Parris Island University logo on T-shirts and other items for sale. Proceeds will go to a group that supports injured Marines.
Friends new and old mingled at the McColleys' on New Year's Day, Eric's favorite holiday. Pork shoulders grilled over coals in the backyard. Inside, photos and other Eric memorabilia were scattered in the living room.
Don Farren, who served with John in the Marines, pointed at a photo atop the fridge showing his son and Eric as boys, smeared in camo paint.
In the living room, Ethan tried his hand at sharing toys with “Baby E,” who was not quite a year old. “Baby E,” whose real name is Chloey Bowman, came into the world the day after her parents learned Eric, a close friend, had left it.
Chloey's mother, Stacy, had cried and cried, and the stress triggered her labor. Chloey arrived soon after, prompting her nickname in honor of “Uncle Eric.”
For friends, John pointed out handmade gifts that have continued to arrive from strangers.
An Army veteran had made a shadow box with Marine mementos arranged inside. A Reading woman had delivered a cross-stitched hanging of a broken heart and Eric's name. A red, white and blue afghan draped over the couch came from the American Gold Star Mothers.
“As much as you want to move on, it just keeps coming back. I don't even know if that's the right way to put it. As thoughtful as it is, it's like picking off a scab because it hurts,” John said of the gifts.
A few weeks after New Year's, John and Susan drove Cheryl and Ethan back to Virginia by way of Quantico on a sunny, 40-degree day.
The pine wreaths they had laid against the tombstones in Eric's section before Christmas had kept their green with a few shabby exceptions.
John explained that he arranged with cemetery officials to informally reserve the plot next to Eric's - for he and Susan.
“You can do that?” Cheryl asked.
“Yeah,” John said.
They noted with surprise that a small, red Marine Corps flag had lasted.
After 45 minutes, the wind became too much. Cheryl loaded Ethan back into the car, while John and Susan lingered before the grave.
“It hurts so bad to be here,” Susan said. “And yet I have to come back.”
Sgt. Jonathan Eric McColley
Born: June 1, 1982
Died: Feb. 17, 2006, in a helicopter accident during training off the coast of eastern Africa
Nicknames: Sgt. Mac, Big Mac
Family: Parents, John E. and Susan; sister and brother-in-law Cheryl and Kiel E. Newbanks; and nephew Ethan
Education: Diploma, Gettysburg Area High School (2000).
Occupation: U.S. Marines since 2000; served in the Iraq war
Hobbies: Scuba diving, swimming, rock climbing and music collecting (especially Jimmy Buffett, the Grateful Dead and the Beach Boys)
Date: Feb. 17, 2006
Time: approximately 4:10 p.m.
What happened: Pair of CH-53E heavy-transport helicopters collided during a training mission
Location: Gulf of Aden, 660 feet off the coast of northeastern Djibouti
Casualties: 10 dead
Cost of lost aircraft, weapons and gear: $42.7 million
Source: Judge Advocate General Manual Investigation
A scholarship fund has been established in memory of Sgt. Jonathan Eric McColley.
The first Eric McColley Scholarship of Honor - at least $750 cash and an engraved medal - will be awarded 7 p.m. May 29 to a graduating senior at Gettysburg High School who has plans to serve in the military or pursue a career in public service.
Retired Col. Wesley L. Fox, a Medal of Honor recipient from Virginia, will present the award.
Applications are available at http://www.briansjourney.com or at the school.
To become a lead sponsor or make a contribution to the fund, contact Stan Clark at 337-1728, firstname.lastname@example.org or 915 Fairview Ave., Gettysburg, PA 17325.
The scholarship will be administered by the Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation, which has also established scholarships in memory of some who died in the war in Iraq.
A motorcycle Poker Run is planned for June 2 to help raise money for the fund.