By Jillian Ogawa
When Bob Martyn of Orlando, Fla., heard a Patriot Missile had hit a F/A-18C Hornet on April 2, he was immediately concerned. He first thought of his friend, Navy Lt. Nathan White, who flew the same plane in the war in Iraq.
“I figured that if it was him, he ejected because he knew that plane,” Martyn said.
For the next week, reports of Nathan White”s status kept jumping between alive and dead. The family only heard tidbits of information about Nathan”s situation, but Nathan”s father, Dennis White, was concerned.
“I flew combat missions in Vietnam, and I knew the longer a search lasted, it wasn”t good,” he said.
On April 12, the military found Nathan”s body in Lake Karbala, Iraq.
The family learned Nathan was returning from a bombing mission when he radioed he was being tracked. Nathan proceeded with evasive maneuvers, but he only had about four seconds before the plane was hit.
“The whole front of the plane was gone, and the force killed him instantly,” Dennis said.
Dennis, a Vietnam War veteran, knew things like friendly fire happened but still struggled to understand Nathan”s death.
“I can”t fault them (the U.S. military) on that because the Patriot Missiles were there to protect their men, but the Patriots should be made so they could identify a friendly foe,” he said.
Nathan”s tragedy was the third time a Patriot Missile hit a U.S. target.
Despite the feelings of anger and confusion experienced by the White family, Dennis said they have managed to cope.
“I find myself getting angry at times, but I realize that being angry won”t bring him back,” Dennis said. “My honest opinion is that the Lord”s hand was in it, and we don”t know the reasons why, and as far as the Lord is concerned, it was no accident.”
The White family and Nathan”s close friends say religion, particularly their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, plays a big part in handling their loss.
“I think it makes all the difference in the world,” said Tasha Thompson, Nathan”s younger sister from Abilene, Texas. “It gives us comfort that we have an afterlife. I have no doubt that he is a missionary over there. I don”t know how people without the gospel deal with death.”
Nathan, who was 30 years old and a BYU graduate, received full military honors at his burial at Arlington National Cemetery on April 24. His F/A-18 Hornet was the first U.S. fighter jet shot in the war, and Nathan was one of two officers from USS Kitty Hawk who were killed during the conflict.
“Arlington was the right place for Nathan to be buried,” said Ana Mitchell of Provo, Nathan”s older sister and a lecturer for the Department of Dietetics and Food Services at BYU. “It is a place where the heroes of our country are buried.”
Mitchell described the day of Nathan”s burial as “tragically beautiful.”
The sky was blue, the air was crisp and the Dogwood Trees were in full bloom. About 150 friends and family members walked silently and solemnly for a mile behind the horse-drawn carriage on their way to the place where Nathan was buried. Before the dedication of the grave, a team of Hornet fighter jets from the USS Kitty Hawk flew overhead in the missing man formation.
“They flew together, and one flew away and out of sight,” Dennis remembered.
“All the emotions you could possibly think of were there (at Arlington),” said Sherry White, Nathan”s mother. “There wasn”t an emotion that our family didn”t go through from the first of April to the end of April.”
Today, Nathan”s family is slowly adjusting to the routine of a normal life, but Nathan remains in the back of their minds. They talk about his innocent childhood antics and pranks, and his natural ability to excel in athletics and academics. High school, college and navy friends continually write to tell the White family how Nathan impacted their lives. All remember Nathan”s integrity, dedication and love.
“In 30 years, Nathan did more than what people do in a long lifetime,” Mitchell said.
The White family and friends have created a Web site as a memorial for Nathan. The Web site includes messages from Nathan”s friends throughout the world.
“We learn more about Nathan through people he has made contact with throughout the world,” Sherry said. “We just become more in awe about the person he is. His life has unfolded to more than what we knew.”
The White family compiles all the messages in a book of remembrance that will be given to Nathan”s wife and three young children.
“I know it”s been therapy for me,” Dennis said. “In the long term, it will help the children remember Nathan … Hopefully, when Nathan”s children read about the war in Iraqi, they will feel that their father had a part in their freedom.”
Nathan White grew up in Abilene, Texas, and his high school friends remembered him as a kind, caring and fun person. Those characteristics would be associated with him throughout his life. After he served a two-year church mission to Japan, he went to BYU to study Japanese.
“I could never picture him without a smile,” said Dr. Van C. Gessel, dean of the BYU College of Humanities. “He had ability to make you believe he was your friend forever. Also, he didn”t sit back and rely on what he knew. He was always determined to improve himself and be better.”
Nathan”s ability in the language also impressed Gessel. Nathan took three Japanese comparative literature classes, which require the students to think and talk in Japanese.
“He (Nathan) was a really hard worker,” said Gessel. “He was always willing to tackle his assignments. I couldn”t remember a time he came to class without a lot of research.”
Gessel got to know Nathan during an internship in New York.
“Nathan had profound cultural awareness and sensitivity,” Gessel said. “It was fun to see how he would make strangers loosen up and make strangers enjoy what they were learning.” While in New York, Nathan met his future wife, Akiko, and they were married April of 1995.
Nathan graduated from BYU with honors in 1997 and moved to Mesa, Ariz., where he joined the Navy. He considered going to law school. He was accepted and offered scholarships to the law schools at BYU and the University of Texas, but he decided to join the Navy flight school in Virginia.
He earned “wings” in 1999 and graduated top of his class. His hard work was rewarded with the choice to fly any fighter jet he wished. He chose the Hornet.
“The Hornet is the top fighter jet and frontline in war,” said Dennis. “For Navy pilots, the Hornets were the best of the best. There are not more than 1,000 Hornet F-18 pilots in the world.”
Nathan moved to Japan and was stationed at the Atsugi Navel Base, working on the USS Kitty Hawk. Along with flying, Nathan had additional duties was in the weapons and tactics departments. He stayed in Japan for two years before he was deployed to Iraq in February. During the war, Nathan led bombing missions and flight formations in and out of battle.
In his last e-mail to his family, Nathan drew an analogy between flying a fighter jet and going to Sunday School:
“When it gets really hard, it”s like they always say: You fall back on your training. Redundancy in training prepares you for those nights where your legs are shaking, and you know that if you don”t relax and get your refueling probe into the refueling basket, you are going to flame out and lose the jet.
“Life is no different. Success in any endeavor is brought about by personal preparation … Your Sunday School and seminary teachers, scout leaders and priesthood leaders, and, yes, even your parents, have valuable lessons of life to impart that are all aimed at preparing you for the tough decisions each of you face.
“Listen to those people who have been there before … When you find yourself in a defining situation where a difficult decision has got to be made, you will fall back on your training and come out a survivor.”
Nathan wrote the e-mail to share in a priesthood lesson, Mitchell said. “That (the last e-mail) was his testimony. He didn”t know the world would be reading it.”
Nathan is survived by his wife, Akiko, and three children, Courtney, 7; Austin, 6; and Zachary, 3. A fund has been established to help alleviate the financial impact of Nathan”s death on his immediate family. The Web site, www.ltnathanwhitechildrensfund.org, has information.