Lieutenants Art delaCruz and George Wikoff were not thinking about their name tags or their future careers as they plummetted out of the sky. It was July 6, 1996, and the F-14 they’d just ejected from flamed behind them, then landed in a fireball in Nevada’s 40-Mile Desert.
delaCruz and Wikoff, both TOPGUN instructors, had been training, doing a one-v-one—one airplane against another airplane, simulating a fight with other crews from TOPGUN—over the desert near Fallon, NV, when their F14 experienced mechanical failures. Then, the jet went into a tailspin, forcing delaCruz and Wikoff to eject.
Over at Naval Air Station Fallon, Navy Search and Rescue began scouring the horizon, looking for the ejected TOPGUN pilots.
Jack Ruskin was among them. A Navy search and rescue corpsman, he was soon in the air and headed toward the delaCruz and Wikoff. As the in-flight medical technician, it was his job to scoop the TOPGUN instructors out of that Nevada desert. Once he did—once Ruskin and his colleagues had delaCruz on a backboard and loaded into the helicopter—he ripped delaCruz’s name patch off his flight suit and added it to a small but growing collection.
It’s a tradition in the military: upon rescuing a service member, the rescuer can take their nametag—a memento of a life saved, of sorts. Then, business done, the men went their separate ways.
Some 26 years later, out of the blue, Ruskin offered to return that patch to delaCruz.
Picking Up Pilots in the Desert
The first time delaCruz and Ruskin met was in the desert. “I guess the moment I really meet Jack is when we were waiting in the desert, just kind of waving to the helicopter as it lands,” says delaCruz. His first and last memory of Ruskin was the man throwing him onto an immobilization board.
To be clear, Ruskin was on the search and rescue crew with the Navy.
“Everybody who does Navy Search and Rescue is ticked off because in the movie Top Gun they had a Coast Guard helicopter pick up the crew,” says Ruskin. He’s clear: the Navy rescues its own.
That July 6, 1996 day was unusual even for Ruskin, who over the course of his career with the Navy would assist in at least 40 rescues, though not all were military.
The first unusual thing about the day and the crash was that it was TOPGUN.
“These guys don’t normally have accidents,” Ruskin says. Then, there was the fact that it was out over the desert. And, there was how the wreckage and pilots were located.
“I believe Art tells the story that our pilot radioed and said ‘hey, shoot up a flare or something to signal your location,’ and Art was like, ‘well, just look for the big ball of fire from the F-14 that’s on fire,” Ruskin says with a chuckle.
After Ruskin and team had delaCruz loaded into the helicopter, there wasn’t a lot of back and forth between the men. Ruskin ripped the pilots’ nametags and the men went their separate ways.
Out of Thin Air
For a good quarter-century, the men forgot about one another. Then, in February of ’22, Ruskin—now a partner in a CPA firm in Wisconsin—was scrolling through the list of attendees for a trade show when he noticed Art delaCruz among the speakers. Team Rubicon, where delaCruz is now CEO, was familiar: Ruskin has buddies who volunteer with the veteran-led disaster response nonprofit. But, the name delaCruz itself seemed familiar somehow. He thought maybe delaCruz was a helicopter pilot he’d served with in Fallon. So, he reached out on social and asked if he was a pilot.
No, responded delaCruz, but maybe it was something else.
“One of your huckleberries actually picked me up from a dry lakebed in 1996,” he replied. “I ejected out of an F-14 flat spin out of Fallon on July 6, 1996. Got flown home in one of the Longhorn helos.”
Ruskin soon realized he was that huckleberry, and that he still had delaCruz’s patch tucked away somewhere. He even felt a little bad about the way he’d taken it and offered to give it back to delaCruz if he wanted it.
The Team Rubicon CEO declined. In fact, he thought it was far more special that Ruskin had that patch.
So, while no patches were exchanged, the two men did manage to meet up, in person, in early March. And the first thing Ruskin did was hug delaCruz.
“I don’t know if he was expecting that, but I just went in for the hug, because it was such a unique thing,” says Ruskin. “The entire time I was in the Navy, I really I didn’t get to meet anybody that I picked up. So my initial instinct was just throw my damn arms around him. I was so happy to meet him.”
For delaCruz, the feeling—and admiration—was mutual. “One of the things that I’ve always believed is that it’s the sailors that made my journey special in the Navy, it’s always about the people,” says delaCruz. Now, it’s not just the sailors he served with, but in this case, one who served him in an incredible and unique way. “I’m glad that we had the opportunity to connect.”
Even, it seems, if he didn’t take his patch back. The meeting gave both men the chance to reflect on their service, and also to rearrange their mementos at home. delaCruz’s and Wycoff’s patches now hold a place of honor next to Ruskin’s humidor in his man cave. Hanging on delaCruz’s wall is all that remains of his wallet from that day: a quarter, melted and bent and encased in aluminum.
Patches, a new friendship, and now the memory of service, 26 years on.