I never meant to play you this story. Let me tell you why I had to.
Every so often I record interviews as part of a school benefit. People ask me to question their parents, or grandparents, to preserve family history. The stories that emerge are a little like our series StoryCorps.
When the McHone family arranged for me to interview Sylvia and Ron of Crystal Lake, Ill., I didn't know their story. Only shortly beforehand did I learn that they wanted to set down some memories of their son, Capt. Nathan McHone, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2012 at age 29.
This recorded interview was meant to be private, but their story felt so important that I asked if I could share it. They agreed. Thousands of Americans have been through the same experience as the McHone family — but it's rare to hear it told in such a raw and honest way.
But there's no point trying to describe it. Just listen.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
I'm Steve Inskeep. On this Veterans Day, we have a private story we never meant to share. As part of a school benefit, I sometimes record interviews. It's a little like our series StoryCorps. People bring in relatives to record bits of family history. And that's how I recently met Ron and Sylvia McHone of Crystal Lake, Illinois. Their private story felt so important that I asked if I could share some with you. They talked about their late son Nathan.
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RON MCHONE: We were just talking today that he would've been a good engineer. He was good at math.
SYLVIA MCHONE: Good at taking things apart, putting them back together.
R. MCHONE: Who got that book - we have a book, "How Things Work."
S. MCHONE: That was Nathan.
R. MCHONE: Silvia remembers things like that.
S. MCHONE: One of his teachers recommended that we buy that book for him. She said this is Nathan, she said.
R. MCHONE: He was always very adventurous.
S. MCHONE: Yeah.
INSKEEP: Adventurous. The McHones recalled living in Georgia with a pond that attracted alligators just beyond the backyard fence.
R. MCHONE: Right away, Nathan became very adept at climbing the fence. He took it on as a challenge.
INSKEEP: Going out to do some alligator wrestling.
INSKEEP: That was Nathan McHone, born in 1982. When he grew older, he wanted to be a pilot. To do that, he enlisted in the Marines after 9/11. We tell you this story because in 2012, Captain Nathan McHone was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. The McHones are among at least 2,200 American families who shared an experience. All received news of a service member killed in Afghanistan, where U.S. combat operations formally end this year. All went through a moment of learning the news.
S. MCHONE: It was a Thursday. We had had company at our house. They left about 10 o'clock, and we had just climbed into bed and turned out the lights. And the doorbell rang. And we looked at each other and we thought, did somebody forget something? You know, was something wrong with the group that was over? And then Ron went down.
INSKEEP: He started downstairs. And as he told us the story of walking down those stairs, something kept happening. He kept veering off-topic. Changing the subject to earlier days when Nathan was alive.
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INSKEEP: Who was at the door?
R. MCHONE: Two Marines. OK, one thing that I think is important to understand is Nathan was the middle child. And to a major extent, I think he was also a mediator, and he was just always even-keel.
S. MCHONE: Happy.
R. MCHONE: Mhmm. (Laughter) He would push the button to see what kind of reaction he got. And it was impossible to hold it against him because you knew what he was doing, he's just you know, horsing around or whatever. And...
S. MCHONE: But there were two Marines at the door.
R. MCHONE: And I knew seeing the two Marines at the door, I didn't want to finish going down the stairway. You know what it means, you know. I mean, there's something bad happened if they come to your door.
INSKEEP: Could you see going down the stairway that that's who it was?
R. MCHONE: Oh, yeah. Our door has little windows in it and a light comes on during the night, and so they were illuminated.
INSKEEP: So you stopped - or wanted to stop - in the middle of the stairs?
R. MCHONE: We have - well, and there were other things too. Nathan, you know, he was a runner growing up. He is in track and that kind of thing. But, you know, I didn't want to go to that door.
INSKEEP: We're talking now, and you're still not wanting to go down those stairs.
R. MCHONE: No.
INSKEEP: And did they tell you something, or did they hand you a piece of paper?
S. MCHONE: They say the words. But then when you don't want to believe them, they read the words to you.
R. MCHONE: Even then I was thinking, well, you know, maybe they're wrong, you know. You try to make it go away.
INSKEEP: Was there another moment later that it hit you then? - Where you couldn't deny it anymore?
S. MCHONE: Maybe a month later. You know, at first there's so much commotion going on. You've got the press calling. You've got your casualty officer thing. OK, pack your clothes, we're taking you to Dover. You know, we're going to get you on this airplane tomorrow. And, you know, you've got to tell your relatives, and you've got to, you know, call your pastor, and you're just letting them lead you. And, you know, he wasn't in combat. We weren't expecting it. He had a month left, and he would've been back in Hawaii.
INSKEEP: This was a mechanical failure?
R. MCHONE: Mhmm.
S. MCHONE: Accident report says it's a mechanical failure. The main rotor and the gearbox broke off the helicopter. It dropped to the ground, and then over here, the helicopter dropped. And it says in the accident report that there was nothing the pilots could've done to save that aircraft.
INSKEEP: How many people were on the helicopter at the end?
S. MCHONE: Six.
INSKEEP: They were all killed?
R. MCHONE: Mhmm.
S. MCHONE: They fell from 5,500 feet.
INSKEEP: I'm sorry for your loss. I understand they have a marker at Arlington National Cemetery?
R. MCHONE: Mhmm.
S. MCHONE: Mhmm.
INSKEEP: And that yesterday, before you can here, that you guys paid a visit? What's there?
S. MCHONE: It is a big stone with the six names listed.
R. MCHONE: Just recently put in. The grass hadn't been planted around it yet.
S. MCHONE: Mhmm. There was another couple there just, you know, a few stones down from our son's. And so we went over and talked to them, and we had a really nice chat with them. Their son was three months back from Iraq, and he was killed in a motorcycle accident in Hawaii. Nathan was stationed in Hawaii, so we had a really nice chat with them.
INSKEEP: In what way is he still with you even though he's gone?
S. MCHONE: I don't know - I think of him, you know, every day. I think of the funny things. I think of the things that he shouldn't have done. The things that he did.
R. MCHONE: Right, I'm going to show you this. I don't show this to many people.
INSKEEP: All right. You got your wallet here. This is a piece of black fabric here that's been torn a little bit.
R. MCHONE: It's leather, it's leather-like.
S. MCHONE: It Velcros onto their flight suit.
INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, it did feel like Velcro on the back.
S. MCHONE: It used to smell like fuel.
R. MCHONE: It still does. Well, smoke.
S. MCHONE: Yeah, smoke.
INSKEEP: How is your family doing now?
R. MCHONE: I think we're doing fine, by and large.
S. MCHONE: I think we are doing as well as any family that's gone through this. I think, you know, we're really not special because we lost a child, because people lose children every single day.
R. MCHONE: It's kind of like learning how to live without an arm or a leg or something, I think.
S. MCHONE: No, I think it's worse. You have to learn to deal with the cards you're dealt, I guess. But now we have three beautiful granddaughters that are helping. They help a lot. They make us smile. They make us laugh - give us something to look forward to.
R. MCHONE: Really a lot of fun.
INSKEEP: How old are they?
S. MCHONE: They're 4, 2 and 2.
INSKEEP: Maybe someday, they'll listen to this.
INSKEEP: Well, thank you guys. I really appreciate it. Ron and Sylvia McHone remembering their son Captain Nathan McHone on this Veterans Day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.