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Dan’s Gift

Master Sgt. Daniel R. Wassom II died shielding his daughter from debris as a tornado ripped apart his home. That’s all we knew as we walked up to the property in Vilonia, AR. This man was another tragic casualty from the indiscriminate storm that ripped through central Arkansas on April 27. But also being a father of two, Dan’s sacrifice resonated very deeply with me.

While we worked on his property, we were visited by his mother, Pam, who is by far the most positive person I’ve ever encountered given what she’s gone through. And Pam told us how Dan was a Trekkie, a love he shared with and had inherited from her. She told us how Dan was a practical joker and had made up his own words and phrases – “Wassom-isms” adopted around the Air Force Base.

Operation: Rising Eagle

And as she stood on the foundation that used to be her son’s home, she stared across the slab at the former hallway where he lay hunkered down with his family, and softly said to me, “Oh, how he loved his girls. He was such a great father to those two girls.”

My children are the same age as Dan’s daughters, and I can think of no greater remembrance to have bestowed upon me in my passing than that simple line: “He was such a great father.”

I ached for his wife. I ached for his daughters. I ached for his parents. It was immediately apparent this world was a little worse off without Dan in it. I put that energy into the swinging of the sledge, and as other team members went to meet up with some local volunteers to bring to the site, TR member JJ Selvig and I stayed behind to bust brick from the base of the foundation.

After a few minutes JJ called to me to come look at something he found in the back yard. I walked down the steps onto what used to be the back porch, and I saw what JJ saw: in the corner of a recently poured concrete slab lay perfectly preserved hand prints from Dan’s daughters. This was a moment preserved in time, a direct connection to a shared moment between father and children that was pressed into this piece of concrete. We had to save this.

I made plans to come back with a small team and the right tools the following day, and after the local volunteer group arrived and was put to work, I headed to another site to help out. However, that afternoon a friend of one of the volunteers offered to lend us a concrete saw. So with the help of some local generosity and brute muscle, the corner of the slab was loaded onto a trailer to be taken back to the Team Rubicon FOB (forward operating base) and saved for the family. That evening we called Pam and asked if she could come meet us the next day since we found something that she might like to pass on to Dan’s family.

Operation: Rising Eagle

Early Sunday morning, just after 7 a.m., Dan’s parents Pam and Dan, Sr. arrived at the FOB. Team members led them to the trailer where we had the slab strapped down. Needless to say, it was an emotional moment. After wiping tears away Pam let out a chuckle as she pointed to the barely visible handprints of the younger of Dan’s daughters. “You can see where she tried so hard to get her prints in there.”

Operation: Rising Eagle

We shared some hugs, a few tears, and a few laughs (as I had come to find out was unavoidable when around Pam), and we made plans to cut the slab down smaller and have it delivered to the family.

After more than three years of operations with Team Rubicon, when I feel I could be become desensitized to the amount of destruction I’ve grown accustomed to being around so many weeks out of a year – BOOM, I’m rocked back into reality and the tangible tragedy and loss that permeates the air. I am not immune to it, nor would I ever want to be. It fuels me, it motivates me, it keeps life real. But most importantly, it reminds me to absorb the time with my family that much more – little questions of curiosity at the dinner table like “so what’s in a hamburger?”, the sweet lisp and missing front tooth of my daughter, the speed at which I can turn Luke Skywalker into a pile of giggles by finding his ticklish spots. These are moments that, as I’ve been reminded, can be taken away in an instant.

When I got home last month from Arkansas, I hugged my kids a little bit tighter, I gave them my undivided attention, I engraved into my memory the way they looked up at me from their beds as I kissed them goodnight, and, for a moment, I thought of Dan and his unintentional gift to me – a reminder to be “such a great father.”

Operation: Rising Eagle

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