P-MAN IX Final Report
REMEMBRANCE: Robert L Holler, Chief Master Sergeant, USAF (ret) and BentProp Team Member
27 Days with Bob: More Than a Few But Just Not Enough
Bob Holler’s last day in Palau was 15MAR07. Three days later, on 17MAR07, Bob Holler was killed in a tragic skydiving accident near Atlanta, Georgia, when another skydiver impacted Bob at high speed from behind while both were under canopy. The collision killed both men instantly.
Some of us in the BentProp Project, including Dan O’Brien, Val Thal and Flip Colmer, had already known and loved Bob for many years before he joined the team. Some of us like Derek Abbey and I knew him personally for far shorter a time: Derek Abbey for 22 days and me, 27 days and change. All I have written above in the mission summary has focused on the team: what follows is mostly about Bob and me – and the impact 27 days with Bob had and will continue to have on me for the rest of my life.
I had heard for years about the incredible Bob Holler: Air Force pararescue jumper who had personally saved more than 300 lives during his 30 year military career, combat veteran, physical specimen extraordinaire, skydiver, scuba diver, proud father, dog lover, outstanding human being – and this is only the short list. I finally met this living legend for the first time just after his retirement when Dan brought Bob over to my house for a meal – actually, it was not just for a meal. Regardless of talents and recommendations, all P-MAN participants are interviewed by the Team Leader (me) for field suitability, prior to being selected for participation. Whereas the interviewees typically feel lucky if they get invited, I knew after five minutes (I must be a slow learner) that we would be the lucky ones if he chose us.
To give him time to enjoy his retirement with his family and friends, it was only in 2007 that we asked him if he would join us. He accepted without hesitation. Later in Palau, he pulled me aside and asked what he had done wrong at the dinner because it took three years to get asked. What I had not realized was how important the BentProp Project was to Bob. I should have figured it out with his question, but, sadly, I would only learn the depth of his pride about being a team member at his funeral - from so many of his grieving friends.
Several of us have been to Palau many times. Not one of us ever came close to making the immediate and profound impression that Bob did wherever he went. It was striking how Bob befriended every man and woman, child and elder, native and tourist he came in contact with. The Palauans loved him, as if they had known him forever. Dogs and cats followed him around. I never thought to look but when he scuba dived, the fish probably followed him too. The man had magical power.
At the same time, Bob also had command presence – a much-sought-after but rarely seen military virtue. Bob was not a physically tall man but when he walked into a room, people knew it. He watched and he listened. If he liked what he saw and heard, he remained quiet: if not, he quietly fixed what was broken with a few well placed words. Now I strongly suspect one does not get to be an Air Force Chief Master Sergeant by always being quiet but Bob did not have to raise his voice often. I could see this same presence in his actions as well: on the jungle hikes, he did not bound up to the front of the team to show how strong or tough he was – in fact, he led from the rear, making sure everyone else finished each trip safely before he did.
Bob cared very much about the BentProp Project’s mission of finding MIAs so that they may be brought home. It is no small source of joy to me that during P-MAN IX we found the Marine Corsair MIA crash site – at which, deep in the mangrove swamps, Bob participated in our flag ceremony.
For 27 straight days, I worked and played with Bob – I have been told that not many people have shared that amount of concentrated time with Bob and that I was fortunate to have the time I had. Perhaps. But it was not nearly enough.
As a physician, I know death - and, yet, I just have not been able to come to grips with Bob Holler not joining us again. Before we left Palau, he (quietly) made me reserve our hotel rooms for the next mission - a symbolic affirmation that we would all be coming back. So be it, Bob: you will be back with us. As long as P-MAN teams travel, you will always be a member on our roster. You still have much to teach us and we will continue to listen for and to your quiet voice.
Page last modified 6 October 2007