ORONO, Maine — Last year on Memorial Day, just three weeks before he died in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Brandon Silk posted on his Facebook page a quote from Gen. George S. Patton, a hero from an earlier war.
“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived,” Patton said in his speech at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston in June 1945.
That message means a lot to Brandon’s parents, Mark and Lynn Silk of Orono, as they come to terms with the loss of their beloved eldest son. Brandon died in a helicopter crash on June 21, 2010, while serving his fourth tour of duty with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Before his two deployments to Afghanistan, he also had served in Iraq and in Korea.
The crash that killed Brandon Silk occurred as his Black Hawk helicopter crew, of which Brandon was the crew chief, was preparing to deliver a group of Australian special forces deep into Taliban territory.
“They were flying in at a very low level, very fast,” Lynn Silk said. “The air was full of dust particles and it was dark.” There was a miscalculation, and the Black Hawk slammed into the earth.
In a transcript of the helicopter’s black box recording immediately before the crash, Brandon is the last to speak, Lynn Silk said. He instructed the pilot to pull the helicopter up from the deadly course it was on. It wasn’t enough to prevent the crash or save her son, she said, but it kept the death toll from climbing higher.
“He pulled them up so the whole crew wasn’t lost,” she said. Brandon died at the scene, along with three of the 10 Australians.
The past 12 months have brought healing and support to Brandon’s parents, but the loss of their rambunctious, high-spirited son is never far from their minds.
“It is a huge hole in our lives,” Mark Silk said. “It is a weight you carry with you all the time. You carry it pretty well most days, but it doesn’t take much to derail you.”
Brandon Silk would be 26 now. He joined the Army in 2003, shortly after graduating from Orono High School. His father said there was never any question what Brandon would do after graduation.
“It was always the military. It was everything to him,” he said. His son’s love affair with the armed services began when Brandon was just a toddler, when the family was living at Fort Richardson in Alaska.
“I took him flying when he was 3 or 4,” Mark Silk said. “We would strap him into his car seat in the cargo area so he could see out the front and he could see out the back. We’d fly out over Anchorage and the Seward Peninsula and over toward Mount McKinley. He loved aviation.”
“We took him to see ‘Top Gun’ when he was little,” Lynn Silk said. “I don’t know how many copies of that movie we wore out.” Brandon identified with actor Tom Cruise’s charismatic, devil-may-care character even as an adult, she said. He was popular among his high school friends and later his Army buddies, for his larger-than-life personality and fun-loving spirit, she said.
“He always wanted to be a soldier,” Lynn Silk said, but Brandon’s mind was made up on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York.
“That was the defining moment in Brandon’s life,” she said. “When he saw those twin towers come down, it was done.”
The Silk family has deep roots in military service, so it was an honor to have Brandon join up, his father said. His other sons, David, 23, and Blaine, 19, also have made military commitments, serving with the Air National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing in Bangor.
But Brandon, he said, had a special enthusiasm for the military way of life. He thrived on the rough-and-tumble camaraderie with his buddies and was proud to serve on dangerous combat missions. Crucially, he had no ambivalence about the military goals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he felt a deep commitment to his fellow soldiers.
“He absolutely believed we were making progress,” Mark Silk said. “He didn’t have to go on this last deployment. He called and said, ‘I could have stayed back, but these are the guys I trained with and if anything happened, I would feel bad.’”
After receiving the shattering news of their son’s death, the Silk family was assigned a local Army officer who helped them cope with their grief and make funeral arrangements while they awaited the return of Brandon’s body to Maine.
It was several days before the Army released the body — one of the most difficult aspects of that terrible time. But it was some comfort, Lynn said, to know that her son wasn’t alone: Army policy dictates the continual presence of an assigned guard.
“Your soldier is never left alone,” she said. “From the time he dies until he is released to your care, he is always guarded.”
On Wednesday, June 30, Brandon Silk’s body was flown from Fort Campbell to Bangor International Airport on a private charter plane, accompanied by an Army chaplain. Six uniformed soldiers carried the flag-draped casket to a waiting hearse, and a motorcade of more than 20 vehicles, including an extensive police escort, proceeded from Bangor through Orono and on to a funeral home in Old Town.
The route was lined with residents who turned out to welcome the young hero home. In downtown Orono, Maine State Police troopers lined up outside the barracks. Members of the Orono High School football team, for which Silk once played, wore their jerseys. Workers stood in front of the Old Town Fuel and Fiber plant on Route 2. Flags waved. People saluted or covered their hearts with their hands.
It was a heartfelt, hometown welcome, his mother said, and one that would have astonished Brandon.
“If Brandon could have seen into the future what Orono and Old Town did for him, he would have gone crazy,” she said. “He would have been so proud to see all the people who came out for him.” Even though people may disagree about the meaning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said, on that day, “the politics went away and the town went into mourning.”
Throughout those dark days, the grieving Silk family was held up by their friends and neighbors, their church, their communities, and the U.S. Army. Prayers were said for them, pies appeared mysteriously on the doorstep. They barely remember making arrangements for the visiting hours at the funeral home or the burial service that followed with full military honors and a Black Hawk flyover. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe attended the funeral, as did Rep. Mike Michaud, then-Gov. John Baldacci, and Maj. Gen. John Libby, head of the Maine Army National Guard.
“As a family, we went into shock,” Mark Silk said. He felt numb, he said — buffered from the full extent of his grief. “God gives you a kind of grace. You can only take it in a little bit at a time.”
“I don’t think we did anything except show up and do what we were told,” Lynn Silk said. “I don’t know how everything got taken care of. So many people did so much for us. We will never know the half of who they are or what they did, but they need to know we are grateful.”
Today, they remain appreciative of a vibrant network of their son’s friends, comrades and officers who stay in touch by email, Facebook and phone.
“We get cards and letters from all over the place,” Lynn Silk said.
“A day does not go by that we don’t hear something from someone,” added her husband.
Like thousands of other Mainers, the Silk family planned to skip the parades and spend the Memorial Day weekend at their camp on a nearby lake, a place that is steeped in happy family memories.
“It was Brandon’s favorite place in the world,” said Lynn Silk.
Mark said his son’s absence will bring new poignancy to the traditional family gathering.
“Holidays are tough,” he said. “Brandon would crawl through broken glass to call us on every holiday or birthday.”
On Saturday, Mark Silk posted this quote, found on a headstone in Ireland, on the Facebook page created in his son’s memory:
“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”
BDN writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had incorrect information in the first photo's caption. Jaclyn Silk is Brandon's sister-in-law, she's married to his brother David. She is not Brandon's widow.