MAJ Taj “Cabbie” Sareen
By: T.R. Matson
The first time it happens they tell you that you have to let them go. You are young, invincible and it could never be you…until it is the guy next to you. No matter what, they tell you to let them go…. but, the reality of the situation for anyone who has experienced this is that you can never let them go.
It was during my time with my first squadron that I first experienced the “Red Devils” of VMFA-232. They were deployed with us onboard the USS Nimitz and there was no mistaking that Marines were onboard from day one. Within days every pipe on the ship was labeled “This is not a pull-up bar” in a pathetic effort to stop the Devils from destroying the Nimitz in order to get their daily workouts in. It went further than that though. Even though I was flying the E-2C Hawkeye on this particular deployment my interactions with the pilots of VMFA-232 were constant. From the LSO platform as I learned my new trade, to airborne when they would never pass up the opportunity to join up on the big Hawkeye and be led into the break, even if they would get in trouble every time, they did it. The world was their playground and they were larger than life enjoying the floating airport supplied to them by the US Navy.
I will never forget the first port call I experienced with the Red Devils when they came to our “Admin” (hotel room for squadron partying) all decked out in matching custom-made red suits. Their brotherhood was remarkable and had a huge factor on me later applying for a transition to fly the F/A-18C Hornet. With this in mind it came as no surprise to me that when on October 21, 2015, word came out that one of the Devils had lost his life in the most heroic of ways. While I never deployed with Major Taj “Cabbie” Sareen, I was stationed with those who did, and the impact was immediate and fierce. With it came all the memories of those who I did know who are gone well before their time. In the weeks and months ahead people are always searching for answers but the same line eventually is repeated…” You just have to let them go.” Easier said than done.
“Cabbie” touched lives both in and out of the Marine Corps. Even today looking at his photo leaves the viewer shaken from the power of the eyes looking back. He was not a man that did his job out of selfish reasons but for the greater good. Constantly looking to make those around him better, stronger and wiser from his own experiences. Giving back to those who would never be able to slip the surly bonds of earth.
In one story told by a former squadron mate, he and Taj ran across each other in the hot pits in El Centro. After talking on a tactual frequency, Taj, without hesitation offered his squadron mate and friends access to his San Diego apartment and use of any of his cars, but it didn’t stop there. Remembering “Cabbie” from squadron social functions, one recounts how he always took time to get to know the wives, girlfriends and families of his fellow Red Devils. He understood how uncomfortable those events could be for some and he took a genuine interest in getting to know each and every one around him and making them more comfortable. Even during his last moments in this world there are eyewitness accounts that “Cabbie” steered his stricken Hornet away from populated areas on the ground, no doubt sacrificing his life to save others. Taj seemed to have the energy of 10 men. Never satisfied and always striving for more, he left this world a better place than he found it. But what about those still here?
That is the million-dollar question. Every member of the military who has served any amount of time can close their eyes and instantly be confronted with those they’ve lost. Whether it was a time flying, or a joke in the ready room or a port call that can never be forgotten, the images flood back in force. It affects everyone differently, some laugh, some cry, while others begin to shake and feel like they are in a bad dream that will never end. “Why them and why not me,” is often the question. Survivor’s guilt is what the professionals call it but none of that matters to the service member that has more questions than answers. How do you go back to your daily lives now with a huge hole in your heart? How do you keep moving forward when great men and women are taken before their time? I offer this to my brothers and sisters in arms whenever dealing with a tragedy like this.
I will never forget sitting at a bar with a very close friend of mine who is no longer with us. We were sitting in this bar toasting a comrade who had recently died in a crash and while sitting there telling stories and making up lies, a woman approached us and interrupted with a simple question.
“Excuse me, I have been listening to you for the last hour and I am sorry for your loss, but I have a question. After something so tragic, do the rest of you go back to flying, or do you quit and move onto other phases of your life and other jobs?”
The question brought with it complete and utter silence as every aviator in the group reflected on the woman’s words. After what seemed like an eternity my friend broke the silence.
“Of course, you fly, you lift your head up high to honor your fallen brother or sister and take comfort knowing that as a pilot you have the unique ability to lift yourself up off the ground and into the clouds. You will be closer to them on every flight and have yet another guardian angel ensuring your safe landing. It is never easy but it is what we do so that others will remember their sacrifice.”
Taj, you were a man who touched so many in your short time here and continue to touch lives every day. You were a Red Devil in the purest form and there are many aviators today who are blessed to have you looking over them, their Red Devil Guardian with Angel Wings.