Thomas Calabrese –Steve Whitman was a three sport athlete, in football, basketball and baseball at El Camino High School in Oceanside, California. He was also an excellent student so when he was a senior in high school in 1980, he formally requested a letter of nomination from his congressional representative, Congressman Ron Packard to attend the Air Force Academy. Steve was accepted and left for Colorado Springs. After receiving his commission as a second lieutenant and a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, Steve was sent to flight school at Laughlin Air Force base in Texas.
Ten years had passed since he left home and Steve was at his second duty station at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Hawaii. He received word that his father Stuart had suffered a heart attack so he quickly requested 30 days emergency leave and left to be with his family.
Stuart Whitman was at home recovering from heart surgery that was performed at Tri City Medical Center when his son arrived, “I told your mom not to call you. This was just a minor medical issue.”
Lucy Whitman immediately protested, “Minor! Is that what you said? The doctor said you could have died. Does that sound minor to you?”
Stuart Whitman shrugged, “Doctors like to give the worst case scenarios and then when things naturally work out, they can take credit for it. It’s an old trick.”
“Listen to your dad, everything is a conspiracy to him,” Lucy laughed.
“Steve knows what I’m talking about, I bet that you’ve seen UFO’s and when you reported it, the CIA told you that it was top secret,” Stuart nodded knowingly.
“That exactly what happened, how did you know,” Steve smiled;
“How long are you staying?” Lucy asked her son.
“I’ve got 30 days, but I can put in for more if you need me,” Steve replied.
“Can the Air Force get by without you for that long?” Stuart asked.
“The first thing that you learn in the military is that everybody has some value, but nobody is indispensable,” Steve smiled, “They’ll make do”.
“You must be hungry,” Lucy said.
“Why? Do you hear my stomach rumbling?” Steve smiled.
“I just got this recipe for chile relleno burritos, how does that sound?”
“Like music to my ears.”
Over the next few days, Steve spent most of his time just hanging around the house, playing with the family’s chocolate Labrador, Molly, helping his mom run errands or watching television with his father. He started to get restless so he went to Planet Fitness on Oceanside Boulevard and bought a month long membership. Steve felt kind of guilty about taking leave from the military to visit his parents and then going places so he planned his activities before his parents got up in the morning or after they went to bed. Being an early riser and routine oriented person by nature, Steve put in a mental request to awaken at 3:30am. He would get dressed and quietly leave the house.
There were only a few people at Planet Fitness at 4 am and when Steve finished his workout ninety minutes later around 5:30 AM he was both exhausted and hungry. By the time he made it back to the house his parents were just getting up. Around mid-morning he would doze off in the recliner while watching daytime news shows in the family room. During his second week in Oceanside, Steve became aware of a woman who had been at the fitness center every morning since he began going. She looked vaguely familiar, but he could not put a name to her face. The woman had her head headphones on, was laser focused and emitted the unmistakable vibe that she was not there to talk or socialize. Steve accepted the fact that he might never know who she was.
One afternoon, Lucy approached her son, “The Webbs invited us for an early dinner. Do you think that you could take Molly to the dog park around 5:00 pm?”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Once you get to the park, you can let her off leash to play with her friends.”
“Affirmative,” Steve acknowledged.
When he arrived at Palisades Park, there were already about a dozen dogs running around, Steve unleashed Molly and she was off like a rocket and in a less than a minute she was in the midst of the canine chaos. Steve walked over to a bench and sat down. It was a warm Southern California day with a gentle breeze and he was content to just sit back and watch the dogs play. A woman came through the gate, released her shepherd mix then walked over to the bench where Steve was sitting and sat down next to him. Neither person spoke for a few minutes until the woman said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”
Steve took a closer look at the dark haired woman and suddenly it dawned on him, “Do you go to Planet Fitness in the mornings?”
“Yes, do you?”
“I saw you there yesterday,” Steve admitted.
The woman hesitantly admitted, “You could be standing right next to me and I would not have noticed you. Because of my hectic schedule I’ve conditioned myself to stay focused on only what I’m doing.”
“I think you’ve got me,” Steve admitted, “Want to give me a hint?
“I thought pilots were supposed to have good eyesight,” The woman teased.
“It’s not my eyesight, it is my memory. How did you know I was pilot?”
“You’ve got that faraway gaze, now take a closer look,” The woman moved within several inches of Steve’s face. So close that he could smell her coconut scented shampoo.
Steve stared at the woman’s face and immediately determined one thing; she looked even better up close. Finally a light went off in his brain, “Teresa Mendoza?”
“Yeah,” Teresa smiled.
“How long has it been, seven, eight years?” Steve asked.
“Closer to ten, we graduated in 1980, it is now 1990,” Teresa stated.
“Time has been good to you, that’s for sure,”
“That’s nice of you to say,” Teresa smiled, “By the way, how did you like the chile relleno burritos?”
“When your mom told me that you were coming into town, I gave her that recipe. I remembered that you once told me how much you liked them,” Teresa looked at her watch, “I need to go, but when you see me at the fitness center come over and say hello. For some people I’m willing to break my routine,” Teresa called to her dog, “Sammy, time to go!”
When his parents returned home from their dinner engagement, Steve mentioned, “I saw Teresa Mendoza at the dog park, she looked a lot different from the way I remembered her.”
Stuart interjected, “That isn’t the only thing that changed, she turned her entire life around, a complete 180.”
Lucy continued, “After high school, she started hanging out with a bad crowd then got married to a Marine and that barely lasted a year.”
Stuart added, “I don’t know what the crisis point for her was, but maybe she came to the inevitable conclusion that if she was going to support herself then she’d better have a skill, if she didn’t want to work at minimum wage jobs for the rest of her life.”
“So what is she doing now?” Steve asked.
“She just started her residency as an ophthalmologist at UCSD and finished college in three years at the top of her class,” Lucy answered, “Her parents have helped out a lot by letting her live at home so she could focus on her studies, but it is still very impressive what she has accomplished.”
During the beginning of the week, Steve saw Teresa at the fitness center in the morning and they exchanged brief greetings, but on the third day she motioned to the treadmill next to hers, “Care to join me?”
They ran side by side for 30 minutes and as they were leaving, Teresa mentioned, “See you at the dog park around five?”
“Yeah sure, I’ll be there.”
Steve and Teresa were seeing each other twice a day and they enjoyed each other’s company. While walking around the dog park one afternoon, “Teresa inquired, “When are you leaving?”
“My flight back to Hawaii leaves a week from tomorrow.”
Teresa was obviously disappointed, “Would you like to come over for a home cooked dinner this Saturday evening?”
“I would, thanks for asking,” Steve answered.
Teresa opened the door and Steve entered and looked around, “In all the years that we’ve known each other and lived in the same neighborhood, I think this is the first time that I’ve been in your house.”
“It wasn’t like we traveled in the same circles when we were in high school. You were into athletics and academics and I was more into partying and having a good time,” Teresa lamented, “You wouldn’t have had any reason to come over besides I would have been a bad influence on you.”
“Not to change the subject.” Steve commented, “But where are your parents?”
“They went out for a dinner and a movie,” Teresa answered.
“So we’re all alone?” Steve asked.
“Not quite,” Teresa called out, “Johnny, come over here.”
A seven-year boy got up from the couch, walked in and Teresa introduced him, “This is my son.”
Steve extended his hand, “A pleasure to meet you.”
The little boy shook it, “A pleasure to meet you too, sir.”
Teresa gave Steve a warning, “I have priorities in my life right now; my son, my family and my career in that order, and I’m not going to alter my list. Everything and everybody else is either a diversion or a distraction.”
“That makes sense, I’d feel the same way if I was in your position,” Steve asked, “Two questions and be completely honest.”
“What are they?”
“First one, am I a distraction or a diversion?”
“That’s a problem; I’m still trying to figure out what you are. Right now you’re on the good friend list with the potential of being something else,” Teresa responded in frustration.
“Will Johnny be joining us for dinner?” Steve asked.
“Is that your second question?”
“It was going to be; but I’ve got a different one now. Is your son here because you actually wanted me to meet him or because you wanted to see my reaction when I saw him?” Steve asked.
“Both, I can fix him a plate and he can eat in his bedroom if you don’t want him to sit with us. You’re my guest and I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.”
“Don’t do that, I’d like to get know him,” Steve answered with genuine sincerity.
The atmosphere at dinner was lighthearted and playful. Johnny must have asked a hundred questions about the Air Force and flying and Steve answered each one in as much detail as the little boy could comprehend. When it started to get late, Teresa reminded her son, “Time for bed.”
“Can’t I stay up a little longer?” Johnny pleaded.
“I’ll make a deal with you, you go to bed like your mom says and I’ll stop by tomorrow,” Steve said, “That will give you all night to think up more questions.
“Promise?” Johnny asked.
“You’ve got my word.”
Teresa walked her son to his bedroom and then returned, “He told me that he really likes you.”
“I think he’s just interested in planes and faraway places,” Steve shrugged.
“He’s usually very cautious and reserved around strangers. If he didn’t like you, there is nothing you could have said or done to get him to stick around. ”
“I don’t have much experience around kids so as a pilot I just winged it,” Steve smiled, “I’m glad it worked.”
“You know what that tells me?” Teresa asked.
“That you are a good man,” Teresa smiled.
When it came time for Steve to return to the Air Force, Teresa volunteered to take him to the San Diego Airport for his flight to Honolulu, Hawaii. They didn’t speak much along the way until Teresa exited the freeway and then she spoke what was on her mind, “Everything in our lives should tell us that this will never work. We live in different places and our careers don’t mesh. This was a nice few weeks and I’m glad we got to spend some time together, but the timing is all wrong for us.”
“You must have been rehearsing that the whole way down here,” Steve replied. “It was clear, concise and to the point, but was void of any emotion. Here’s the way I look at our situation; I don’t know what the future holds in store for us, but I do know that I care about you. I know what’s it’s like to work for things that I value and that good things don’t always come easy. You are both of those things to me, well I guess that’s all I have to say.”
Teresa pulled over to the curb in front of Terminal 2 and Steve got out of the car, removed his suitcase from the backseat and set it down. He walked around to the driver’s side window and kissed Teresa passionately on the lips, “I’ll be in touch,” and disappeared into the crowd.
Over the next six months, Steve and Teresa kept in touch by phone and e-mail. Maybe fate was smiling on them because Steve received orders for the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base which was located 165 miles from Oceanside. In partnership with several other pilots, Steve purchased a two engine Cessna and began flying to visit Teresa when their schedules permitted. Three years into their dating, Teresa finished her residency and was now in private practice with several other surgeons.
“Would you ever consider marrying me if I asked you?” Steve playfully inquired as they sat on the bench at the dog park.
“I probably would,” Teresa coyly answered.
Steve pulled out a ring from his pocket and before he could speak, Teresa said, “Consider it considered..yes.”
Seven years after their wedding, Johnny graduated from El Camino High School and began attending Mira Costa Junior College, but instead of transferring to a four year university after getting his Associates Degree, he joined the Air Force and applied for parasrescue training. During this same time frame Steve’s career took him to Aviano Air Base in Italy for three years. Steve and Teresa worked out a travel plan where they alternated visiting each other every three months.
Steve applied to fly the SR-71 a long range, Mach 3 strategic reconnaissance aircraft attached to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, located 8 miles east of Marysville, California. When he was accepted for the 18 months assignment, Steve contacted Teresa with the news, “This will be my last duty station. I’ve got enough time in to retire and one of my buddies is currently flying a corporate jet for a software company in Carlsbad. He wants to be near his daughter who lives in Florida and is moving there the end of next year. I’ve talked to the company and sent them my resume, and they’re going to let me take his place. Their jet is based at the Carlsbad Airport and the executives only fly several times a months.”
“Is this what you want?” Teresa asked.
“My time has come; do you think that you can get used to me being around more often?” Steve added, “I don’t want to cramp your freewheeling lifestyle.”
“If you’re going to be around more, then I think it’s time for me to cut back on my schedule too.”
Three months later, one of his fellow SR-71 pilots, Lt. Colonel Rick Jason was flying a routine mission in the Middle East and became ill when an oxygen tank malfunctioned. He was forced to make an emergency landing in Iraq and was immediately hospitalized. Spy planes were highly secretive and it was imperative that it be returned to its home base as quickly as possible. A team of technicians had already been dispatched to Al Asad Airbase to make the necessary repairs and it was placed under 24 hour guard in a secluded hangar.
General Stewart called Lt. Colonel Steve Whitman into his office, “I know you were planning on going home this weekend, but we have a problem and I need you.”
“My wife is a surgeon so she knows that plans are always subject to change when emergencies arise,” Steve replied, “What is the mission, sir?
“I need you over in Iraq fast. You’ll be flying an F-16 Falcon over and then bringing our blackbird back. Flight operations are waiting for you. I’ve also got your retirement paperwork in my desk drawer. If you are having any second thoughts,I can still give it back, otherwise I’ll send it in.”
“No second or third thoughts, I’ve been away from home much too long,” Steve answered, “Teresa is the ultimate military wife, always putting her needs behind those of the country and the Air Force. It is my time to put her first for a change.”
“Actually there is another thing, “Your son is building quite a reputation in Pararescue. You should be proud,” General Stewart said.
“He’s like his mother, always rises to the occasion,” Steve said.
“You might have had a little to do with how he turned out.”
Despite cruising at Mach 2, Steve found himself searching for more power after being accustomed to the SR-71,and its speed of Mach 3 plus. He was descending from 30,000 feet as he entered Iraqi airspace when his plane was struck by a surface to air missile. ISIS fighters had just received a shipment of portable missile launchers from the North Koreans and Steve was unlucky enough to be the first one targeted. The F-16 immediately went into catastrophic failure and Steve barely had enough time to radio a Mayday before ejecting.
A Seal Team on a reconnaissance patrol was immediately diverted to the crash site when they came across a group of enemy fighters heading to the same destination. After a brief and fierce firefight they reached the downed aircraft. Master Chief Naeler radioed in with a status report, “Pilot is not in the aircraft, we will immediately start a grid search.”
American units conducted an extensive search for the Air Force pilot for an entire week before calling it off. Two years passed and the official term for Lt. Colonel Steven Whitman was missing in action. Teresa was devastated and struggled to make it through each day at her medical office. Johnny Mendoza was also heartbroken and found that the best way to deal with his grief was to focus on his career.
When Delta Force operatives raided an ISIS stronghold, they found some valuable Intel. When General Stewart was notified, he went to the Whitman home in Oceanside. When Teresa opened the front door, she was startled and apprehensive to see her husband’s former commanding officer, not knowing whether he had good or bad news, “Good evening General.”
“I have some information about Steve, we think we might know where he is.” General Stewart then proceeded to explain how Delta Force found information on a laptop about an American pilot being held in a prison in Iran.
“You think it’s Steve?” Teresa asked nervously.
“He’s the only pilot that we have missing at this time. It’s the best lead we’ve had so far.”
“You’re going after him, aren’t you? Teresa inquired.
“Absolutely, a rescue mission is being planned right now,” General Stewart promised.
“Keep me posted,” Teresa could tell that General Stewart had something else on his mind, “I’m appreciative that you came here to tell me in person, but there is something else, isn’t there?”
“This is a strongly defended installation and the men that are going after Steve are elite top tier operatives. There are risks involved, just like any other mission behind enemy lines,” General Stewart continued, “I could assign Johnny be part of the rescue team, but then you would have two in harm’s way instead of just one. I won’t do that without your consent.”
Teresa held her emotions in check, then responded from her heart, “There’s a special bond between Steve and Johnny and one of the things that both my men have in common is doing their patriotic duty. Not a day goes by that I’m not aware of risks and loss. My husband has been gone for almost two years and this is the first news that I’ve gotten that he still might be alive. On the other hand Johnny puts his life on the line to bring downed pilots home to their families so they don’t have to endure what I’m going through. So if you’re asking me about assigning Johnny to this mission; my answer is this; if he’s the best man for the job then use him, if he’s not, then find someone better.”
General Stewart looked at Teresa with admiration and respect, “Steve always told me you were the ultimate military wife, he neglected to the say that you were also the ultimate military mother. You have my word that I’ll do my best to bring our boy home safely.”
Teresa embraced the Air Force officer, “I have no doubt about that.”
The C-17 Globemaster held ninety highly trained top tier operatives from Seal Team Five, Delta Force and Air Force Pararescue and their equipment. The plane was cruising at 30,000 feet when the green light came on and the men jumped out in the dark skies in rapid succession. All ninety were gone in less than two minutes and maintained their freefall until they reached 2,000 feet, at which time they deployed their chutes. Their drop zone was laser marked by a satellite circling a hundred miles above them. Each one of these parachutists had made hundreds of jumps, so landing accurately in pitch blackness was not only required, but second nature to these warriors.
Once they touched down, the men slipped on their night vision goggles and moved out in single file. They reached the outskirts of Evin Prison, notable as the primary site for the housing of Iran’s political prisoners since 1972. It was 0400 hours and the Navy Seals took the north and west sides while Delta Force took south and east. Air Force personnel would do the insertion since it was their man inside the walls.
When everyone was in position, the pararescue personnel approached the front gate and eliminated the two guards with accurate headshots. They moved across the courtyard and breeched the metal door with an explosive charge. Once inside the stone structure they methodically moved down the long halls, releasing prisoners as they went and killing the Iranian soldiers. A guard was taunting Steve in his cell when all of sudden his face went blank and he fell over dead when a bullet went through his temple. Johnny walked over and looked through the metal bars at his stepfather, “I hope that you don’t mind that I came without calling first,but I was in the neighborhood.”
“If I’d known you were coming, I would have put on my formal prison ensemble,” Steve responded.
One of the other pararescue personnel took the keys off the dead guard and opened the cell door. Johnny embraced his father, “Good to see you dad.”
“You too, son,”
“Are you strong enough to make it out of here?” Johnny asked.
“Seeing you gave me my second wind,” Steve smiled, “Let’s go.”
As the Air Force personnel exited the building, they saw trucks filled with Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers approaching in the distance. With their .50 Caliber rifles, armor piercing rounds and light antitank weapons, the Navy Seals and Delta Force destroyed the trucks and stopped the reinforcements from reaching the prison. It was now time for extraction and Four Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft with vertical landing and takeoff capabilities arrived. The American strike force rushed aboard and were quickly extracted. Lieutenant Colonel Steve Whitman was medically evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany where he was given a battery of tests, received medical care for his injuries and placed on a special high calorie and high protein diet to build up his strength. When he was well enough to travel, he returned to California and into the waiting arms of his wife Teresa.
The festive party had several hundred people in attendance, that included military personnel from Steve and Johnny’s unit, members of the daring rescue and almost the entire neighborhood. It took place on June 16, 2019 at Palisades Park in Oceanside and was a combination of three things, retirement ceremony, heroes welcome, and last but not least, a Father’s Day celebration.
NOTE: Aspiring Writers Join us on the 3rd Saturday of each month between 11:00 am and 2:00 pm Veterans Writing Group of North County (non veterans are welcome) 1617 Mission Avenue , Oceanside,Ca. 92054
(619) 991-8790 www.veteranswriting group.org – www.facebook.com/VMGSDCounty