When I saw that she had “liked” a post on my office Facebook page I clicked on her name. I was taken to her Facebook page where I saw an amazing picture. It was of her, embracing the marker on her father’s grave. She had never mentioned him, perhaps because he had died when she was a little girl.
The grave marker read “Leonard G. Svitenko, Captain USAF”. Curious, I Googled his name. I learned that he died in the service of our country, the lone fatality in one of the most significant events of the Cold War. He was 27 years old.
In the early 1960’s the Cold War was at its peak. American leaders viewed the Soviet Union as a constant threat and the fear of nuclear attack was constant and real. The United States had an Air Force Base in Greenland that was tasked with monitoring radar for Soviet missle launches. In order to be able to rapidly respond to a nuclear attack, US bombers equipped with nuclear weapons were continually in flight over Greenland. Captain Svitenko was the copilot of such a flight in January 1968.
Prior to take off a member of the flight crew stored some seat cushions under a seat in the back of the plane, seemingly unaware that they were in close proximity to a heater vent. During the course of the flight the plane's heater was malfunctioned. Halfway through the scheduled flight Captain Svitenko was relieved to take his schedule rest break. As the temperature in the plane continued to drop, the officer in the co-pilot’s chair opened an engine valve to allow for heat to enter the cabin.
Another malfunction allowed the air flow from the engine to enter the cabin unfiltered and extremely hot. The stored seat cushions caught fire. By the time the fire was discovered it had progressed to the point where it could not be suppressed with the onboard fire extinguishers. As the cabin filled with smoke the decision was made to evacuate the aircraft.
The crewmen who were in seats ejected safely. Captain Svitenko, who had given up his seat, attempted to exit through a bottom hatch. He didn’t make it. He suffered fatal head injuries as he tried to leave the plane.
The plane crashed. Although the nuclear weapons did not detonate, their payload dispersed in the crash and contaminated the area, resulting in an international incident. The radioactivity and policy of continuous flight received a lot of attention in the following months but the incident ultimately faded out of the national consciousness.
The nation may not remember the death of Captain Svitenko, but his family does. His daughter grew up without her father. She is one of the millions of Americans throughout our history who have experienced first hand the high price of military service. Although Captain Svitenko was not a combatant in a war and did not die in direct engagement with an enemy, he nonetheless died in defense of our nation, doing his part to keep his country safe.
On Memorial Day, may we all take the time to honor the sacrifices of servicemen and women like Captain Svitenko, those who believed in service, in freedom, and in duty and who proved their commitment with their lives. My we also pray for their families, those who remember the sacrifices every day of their lives.