It was a clear, spring morning on Monday May 5, 2008. Field exercise Maple Guardian was well underway as the members of the 3rd Royal Canadian Regiment, based at CFB Petawawa in Ontario, continued the last major hurdle of their operational readiness training.
The men and women of 3 RCR were here at the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre in Wainwright, Alberta in preparation for their deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan in October. The U.S. military was providing support in the form of elements like Chinook heavy lift helicopters from the 159th Aviation Regiment in Fort Lewis, Washington. The CMTC training was the most advanced military training in our nation’s history, and arguably, in the world.
U.S. Army Specialist Joseph Cerfus, 25, was part of the “Hookers”. Specifically, he was one of the unit’s four ground personnel who were tasked with attaching loads with steel cables and hooks to the underside of Chinook helicopters that were literally hovering just above their heads.
That day, our crew was filming at the lift zone as part of Discovery Channel’s Combat School series. The 159th were to haul the stripped-down fuselage of an old Sea King helicopter to a location where it would serve as part of that day’s exercise. I spoke briefly with Joseph Cerfus because I needed to get signed releases from him, and his three other colleagues.
He had the air of a leader, and provided me with a brief, compelling, and surgically precise description of his life in the two or three minutes we had before the arrival of his unit’s Chinook. Joseph became a member of the U.S. Navy at 17, served two tours of duty in Iraq, returning home to Marysville, Washington after the death of his brother. He told me that he joined the U.S. Army reserves because, ironically, it was a quicker way to get his wings as a pilot. He was engaged and due to be married later that summer.
In retrospect, the next few minutes seemed to take much longer to play out, at least in my mind. Our crew moved to get out of the wash of the incoming Chinook’s huge 60-foot rotor blades. We thought we were a safe distance away, but after a second or two of being smacked with the turbulence, we moved back even further, perhaps no more than 100 meters in all.
Joseph and his ground crew positioned themselves on, and around the fuselage – two of them on top of the Sea King, ready to attach the hooked cables to the Chinook’s underbelly, and two on the ground, ready to release the cables supporting the fuselage once it was securely hooked to the Chinook.
Joseph and a colleague were on top and hooked up the fuselage. The two specialists on the ground then released the supporting cables, and moved out of the way. At that moment, we expected Joseph and his mate to jump off the Sea King, clearing out so the Chinook could carry it away.
Instead, there was a moment of hesitation, the lift cables went slack, and then fell to the sides. The fuselage, with no supporting cables on the ground, and Joseph and his colleague still on top, began to rock violently from side to side due to the buffeting from the Chinook’s rotors. It must have been a split second decision on which way to jump, all the while trying to maintain their balance. Both men slid off the side as the Sea King fuselage began to roll in their direction.
Joseph’s partner managed to sprint to the side, avoiding the tumbling airframe. Joseph was not as lucky. He slipped upon hitting the ground, and was desperately trying to regain his feet when he disappeared underneath the Sea King.
In the moments that followed, the Chinook landed a short distance away. I could see the loadmaster throw off his helmet and sprint towards Joseph, who lay out of our sight, behind the now resting hulk of the fuselage. Joseph M. Cerfus was pronounced dead in hospital at 11:54am.
From all the accounts I read afterwards, Joseph was a wonderful person who lived life to the fullest in the true spirit of carpe diem. For some reason I kept his photographic release form until just recently, pulling it out and looking at it from time to time. I thought of the personable young soldier I spoke to in the final minutes of his life; the soldier who was about to be married; the soldier who had dodged the most dangerous of bullets in a decidedly non-figurative sense not once, but twice in Iraq; the soldier who had come home with a dream to fly. He never saw this coming. But who does when death comes unexpectedly? Carpe diem.
RIP Joseph Cerfus.