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THE VERTICAL VISION

More Than a Few Good Men

The Vertical Vision / Part Iii: Casualties

December 17, 2002

He had survived a midair collision of A-4s in 1979, and Kathy Leffler had lived since then with the foreboding that her husband was flying on borrowed time. He left two sons, one of whom has followed him into the Marine Corps.

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MAJ. TODD S. DENSON

Call Sign: Cuddles Died: Feb. 3, 2001

Denson, 32, son of an Army chaplain, grew up in an era when young men were lured into military aviation by the movie "Top Gun." He enlisted after graduating from the University of Tennessee.

He wanted to fly the F/A-18, which he considered a safer plane, said his widow, Melissa Denson Rankin, but he quickly became a Harrier enthusiast after being assigned to the AV-8B. He had some close calls in the Harrier before his fatal accident.

He had been flying the Harrier for a decade and had been an instructor for two years, yet he kept emergency procedures written on flash cards and studied them constantly, Rankin said. "He knew it was a dangerous plane and he took it very seriously."

He died when he and his student, Capt. Jason K. Meiners, lost control of the two-seat training Harrier they were flying to their base at Cherry Point. Denson, in the rear seat, ejected too close to the ground. Meiners also was killed. It was unclear which pilot had control.

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CAPT. JASON K. MEINERS

Call Sign: Coal Died: Feb. 3, 2001

Meiners' and Denson's TAV-8B training plane was landing at Cherry Point when the nose of the plane dipped. They couldn't correct it in time, investigators said.

Meiners' body was found in the wreckage, still strapped to his ejection seat. His body could not be removed immediately because of the risk that detonation devices still attached to his seat might explode. The wreckage was shielded from the rain with a tarp and protected by an honor guard until a special team arrived the next day.

His wife was three months' pregnant at the time. "Their little girl is inquisitive and outgoing, just like her father," said Carol Meiners, the pilot's mother.

Meiners, 27, was so determined to fly that he reapplied to the U.S. Naval Academy after being rejected the first time. He finished in the top 10% of his class and joined the Marines. "He liked the camaraderie of the group," Carol Meiners said, "how they stood up for each other and how they never left a man behind."

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Combat Deaths

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CAPT. JAMES N. "TREY"

WILBOURN III

Call sign: L.Z. Died: Feb. 23, 1991

Wilbourn's AV-8B Harrier was shot down over central Kuwait during a night attack in Operation Desert Storm.

He had been flying missions since the first day of the Gulf War, when he attacked Iraqi rocket launchers and artillery positions, according to news accounts.

A native of Huntsville, Ala., and the son of a Navy veteran, Wilbourn received a degree in aviation management from Auburn University in 1984 and then joined the Marines, earning his wings in 1987. He first flew the A-6 Intruder, switching to the Harrier in 1990.

Wilbourn kept a photograph of Army Gen. George S. Patton on his bedroom wall at home. As a high school football player, he would motivate himself before games in the locker room by playing a tape of the theme music from the movie "Patton."

While in the Persian Gulf, Wilbourn regularly wrote to his parents and his sister back home. He often signed the letters: "Love, Trey, pilot, patriot and defender of freedom."

He was 28.

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CAPT. REGINALD C.

UNDERWOOD

Call Sign: Woody Died: Feb. 27, 1991

Underwood died on the final day of the Persian Gulf War when his AV-8B was hit by a heat-seeking Iraqi surface-to-air missile. He left a 5-month-old daughter he had never met.

"He said he would fly even if he was not paid for it," said his widow, Donda Hill Rhodes. "It was his passion. The Harrier was a challenge and you could not fly it unless you were at the top of your class."

Underwood grew up in Lexington, Ky., and had flown since he was a teenager. He graduated from the University of Kentucky and then joined the Marine Corps. His squadron went to war and he flew nine combat missions before his final one.

On that day, he was flying in formation with three other planes after taking off from the amphibious assault ship Nassau. The mission's target was a convoy of military vehicles traveling north toward Basra. The pilots decided to fly beneath cloud cover at about 8,000 feet to get a clear view, making their Harriers easier targets.

When the missile hit, the commanding officer of Underwood's squadron was flying 1,000 feet away. In retrospect, says Lt. Col. Jerry W. Fitzgerald, it was a mistake to be flying so low. The plane crashed in a huge fireball. Underwood's body was later found in the wreckage of the plane just inside Iraq.

Underwood was 33.

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