Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day: An MC remembers Chief Ryan Bell

Rendering honors at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Yesterday my buddy MC2 Alex Tidd contacted me and asked if I'd run a story he wrote for Memorial Day. If you remember, Tidd was the guy who wrote that great post about his time in Japan, providing humanitarian assistance after the reactor meltdown. He has a very personal experience to share about the loss of one of our own.

The Importance of Memorial Day
by Alexander Tidd, Public Affairs Intern

            I remember my first time seeing the USS Arizona Memorial, a stark white but simple edifice perched on the sparkling cerulean waters of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was oddly beautiful, in its tragic way. Fellow Sailors in their equally brilliant dress whites lined the flight deck of my aircraft carrier as we ceremoniously rendered honors to the sunken mausoleum. We did so because, as is often the case in life, there is much more to the USS Arizona Memorial than what appears on the surface.

Rendering honors at the USS Arizona Memorial.
            Beneath the memorial is the USS Arizona itself, the battleship famously caught on film as its superstructure exploded in flames and was torn asunder, the victim of a direct hit to its massive ammunition stores. Nearly 1,200 of the 1,500-man crew were killed by the explosion or trapped within in the steel confines as it sank, taking just 12 minutes to disappear forever. The majority of their bodies remain there, buried at sea in the remains of the ship they called home.

I did my best to capture this somber moment in photos, 
juxtaposing the naval present with its past.

            It is with a heavy heart I write this, feeling deep emotions despite the generations between me and those brother Sailors lost that day. The Navy values its own to its core and they are forever honored and remembered whenever a vessel comes to port in Pearl. As my fellow crew members of USS Ronald Reagan saluted Arizona in solidarity, I did my best to capture this somber moment in photos, juxtaposing the naval present with its past. I’ve included some of my photos with this story in the hope that they help with understanding Memorial Day.

It was barely four months into my naval career when Memorial
Day would first become a personal event for me.

            Word was spread around the Navy barracks that Chief Petty Officer Ryan Bell, my instructor at DINFOS (better known as the Defense Information School in Fort Meade, Md.), had been hospitalized for a massive heart attack. Little did we know at the time that we were experiencing a real-life application of a lesson we’d only recently been taught in our training—when a servicemember passes away, they are only publicly identified 24 hours after notification of next of kin. 

So it wasn’t until the next day that we found out Chief Bell was dead at just 33 years old.
             Getting to know Chief Bell had been a profound experience for me during my first few weeks of training at DINFOS. I reported there immediately after two months of intensive training at Navy boot camp, where recruits are taught to fear as much as respect anyone wearing a khaki uniform, the common attire of chiefs and officers. But getting to know Chief Bell taught me that chiefs were people too, people who were here to nurture our growth into productive Sailors of a very proud U.S. Navy. 

Memorial display at the Defense Information School.
          Chief Bell was a muscular and youthful black man who stood tall. He was quick to show off his bright smile and had a way of making ever interaction personal. He wanted to know how we were doing, what we were doing and how he could help. Because most of all, he was a teacher. He taught us to become masters of public affairs, or as he liked to put it, “the storytellers of the Navy.” He felt he had the best job in the Navy and wanted to make sure we all felt exactly the same way.
           I was also very fortunate to know Chief Bell on a personal level. He was a big baseball fan and an even bigger fan of Barry Bonds, who I’d grown up watching smash home runs into the bleachers of Candlestick and AT&T Park. Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about.

Chief Bell was also one of the most generous people I’ve met. 

          One time, when he was serving overnight duty as our barracks babysitter, I walked by his office and saw him chowing down on a Whopper from Burger King. I jokingly asked why he hadn’t gotten me a burger too. Immediately, despite still chewing on his last bite, he thrust the burger toward me, sincerely offering to share his dinner. It might be easy to write that off as a joke but with Chief Bell, it was a genuine gesture.

A light moment with Bell during a training exercise.

 I got to know him best on the first Friday night of our holiday stand-down that winter. Most of my classmates caught flights home immediately, but I decided to save a little money and fly back to San Francisco the next day. Consequently, Chief Bell and I were pretty much the only people in the Navy barracks that night. We chatted in the duty officer’s workspace with a ballgame on in the background, sharing experiences and learning from each other. 

He didn't care that I was a seaman recruit, the lowest rank in the Navy. To Chief Bell, we were equals who both had something meaningful to contribute.

That was the last time I would see him alive. I flew home Saturday morning and wouldn't return to Maryland for two weeks. It wasn't long before word got out and I, along with other concerned Sailors, asked if we could go visit Chief Bell in the hospital. We found out the next day why our request was impossible.

After the news had sunk in, I realized I had something to offer my fellow Sailors. I went to the command master chief and told him that I was a trumpet player and would like to play Taps at Chief Bell's memorial service, if they would have them. It turned out to be one of the better decisions I've made, because if I hadn't been able to do so, they would have used a recording on a CD.

I was 21 years old when they struck the bells for Chief that day. As the final strike resonated throughout the room, I lifted my trumpet to my lips and let out the most important notes I'll ever play. The first note warbled as tears ran down my cheeks, but I found my confidence in thinking of Chief Bell and the rest came out as strong as he was. I did my duty as best I could for my fallen friend.

MC3 Alex Tidd

In my five years in the Navy, I had to play Taps for four more Sailors taken before their time. I also played for services remembering the battle of Midway, at burials-at-sea and, of course, on Memorial Day. What I want to be clear is that Memorial Day isn’t about me, it isn’t about you, it isn’t about anyone who can read this account. It’s about those Sailors trapped beneath the waters at Pearl Harbor, it’s about the Marines who died charging Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima, it’s about the Soldiers who didn’t come home from Iraq. 

It’s about Chief Petty Officer Ryan K. Bell, USN.  Memorial Day is something we carry with us because they can’t. 

Chief Ryan Bell