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Sgt. James C. Hagler

| November 9, 2023 1:00 AM

Sgt. James C. Hagler served with the 56th Special Operations Wing, NKP, 1974-75, Delta Squad, Knife 13. He would later write poems and short stories capturing his service and those who fought.

He wrote the following several years ago, he said, amongst the many poems and stories he has written of his service to to honor those who died in the crash of United States Air Force Helicopter, Knife-13. In 2024, there will be a memorial monument placed at Luke AFB, Ariz., and one at Lackland AFB, Texas, in memory of Knife 13s lost on May 13, 1975.

•••

A Warrior’s Fear of Survival

Everyone has a different vision when they hear the word warrior. Is it a vision given from a definition from a book as a child, one from maybe a movie or such other fantasy driven media, or have they actually experienced something in their life that lead them to a conclusion in their mind what a warrior should be? 

I would contend a warrior is not something that is as concrete and as simple as flesh-born acts but a condition that is learned through either need or experience in order to change an outcome.

A warrior must be given a purpose that drives them to exhaust all means to survive or make a change. I have seen real warriors and faux warriors throughout my life, some to be admired, some to be scorned, and it all comes down to the purpose the warrior wears as their breast plate.

Being a warrior to me as kid meant role playing as one would think it would be difficult to be a warrior with no knowledge of exactly what war is truly like. Being a warrior in high school as a member of a team was just pseudo-war and was a psychological aspiration to achieve a goal either physically or mentally above and beyond what you believed you were capable of. 

What was lacking at a young age was the fear, the fear you may not survive when called to action for a higher purpose. After all, your survival was dependent upon what someone else told you was necessary to survive. That manifested fear is the driver of a true warrior, internally deep as a waterfall in a deep cave river. Not all warriors are heroes and not all heroes are warriors but it is possible to be both or neither. 

Sitting in the canvas seats of a Jolly Green Giant flying over Cambodia, the 16 men were all strapped in, dealing with the fear of survival each in a personal separate way. Some were quiet like me, keeping my thoughts to myself as to not tip any off to the fear of not coming back and watching each of them. Some checked, rechecked, and then re-rechecked everything, believing that being organized in some way increased the chances of survival. Some prayed, either quietly or openly, but no one questioning their faith or asking them to be quiet. Some were loud and full of false bravado as if to believe you were indestructible, you were. 

What they all had in common was knowing that if you were wrong, it would be the last time you were wrong. You always have the chance of being right again if you are right. Even strapped in and confined in the cargo area, you felt the sense of vulnerability to something you could not see, your survival instincts heightened but in check. Never would you dare speak of not surviving, the unspoken warrior’s code silently understood. 

Once the door opened, that sense of vulnerability disappeared in to the green canvas of the jungle and everything learned and instinctual influxes in to your survival mode. You realized that everything you would do now was the key to your survivability and your survival was tied to the method others used to deal with it in different ways earlier.

Everyone must be on the same page and it is paramount if all are to survive. Not all survive every mission, lady luck sometimes abandons you, sometimes it is your mistake, sometimes just the wrong place or time, and sometimes it is someone else’s mistake. 

Sometimes survival can be not survival at all, just a prolonging of a difficult never ending mission, living it over and over again. Survival is not always peaceful, sometimes it is less peaceful than death.

•••

Hagler wrote the following to those killed in the crash of the Knife-13 helicopter.


Knife 13 Good Byes

Standing on the metal tarmac, peering at the stars, on that warmish May night,

Three blinking lights appeared on the horizon, heartbroken, the fourth nowhere in sight.

In breathless slow-motion anticipation, not knowing which ones were to no longer be,

 Our Brothers in arms, we were told, lost, four Jolly Greens, now only three.

Standing there, my heart sinking with the pounding arrival of each whirring rotor,

Reading the numbers on their sides as they powered down each pulsing jet motor.

I began to realize that Delta Squad would no longer disembark,

My brothers, no longer there, began a sole quenching reality, a missing spark.

My youthful spirit quickly emptied, as an hourglass where sand had once been,

Heroes who volunteered and broke bread with me, now the ghosts of Knife 13.

Through Gods intervention I was taken from that craft just hours before,

Hand shaking and hugging good byes, not realizing there was never to be more.

I shifted between anger, despair, the realization I would not see my comrades alive,

A twenty-year old Sargent, instantly growing in maturity to a tempered age thirty-five.

In my thoughts over four decades since that warm and fatefully clear night,

Where three blinking lights appeared, still heartbroken, a fourth nowhere in sight.

    A photo of the Knife-13 Memorial showing the men lost when the Knife 13. crashed on May 13, 1975, en route to a rescue mission.
    A photo showing some of the Knife-13 crew. En route to a rescue mission, the helicopter crashed on May 13, 1975, killing 18 security police and its five-man crew.