Phil Reeves flew above us all and not just at 5,000 feet in his Army MEDEVAC helicopter but in the way he was always looking out for us.
On Tuesday a week ago we saw what it looks like to be a community in the very well-attended interfaith service. We’ll see that again this Saturday morning at 11 as our community comes together to mourn the loss of Phil Reeves even as we celebrate his extraordinary life.
Phil was beloved not only by his family but also by the many others of us both near and far who were his extended family. His life ended from cancer way too early at only 57, but he packed so many accomplishments into that time that, from that perspective, his life could be judged long and full indeed. Yet Phil was always quiet about these things, and if you didn’t know from other sources, you wouldn’t know his remarkable accomplishments.
After active duty Army service in Korea, Phil joined the Massachusetts National Guard. With them, he served two tours in Iraq in very dangerous conditions and ones hazardous to his health also — wholly apart from the aviation and combat risks — as he inhaled all sorts of toxic fumes from many sources, including those raging fires with plumes rising thousands of feet in the air, as he went about his rescue missions. His helicopter was the UH-60M Black Hawk, the staple of Army MEDEVAC operations, built right here at Sikorsky’s plant on the Housatonic.
Helicopters are notoriously difficult to fly with controls that are very sensitive and require continuous use of both hands and feet. Phil flew in all conditions, and in Iraq, zero visibility could come from sandstorms as easily as from atmospheric conditions. The life expectancy of a pilot flying without instrument rating in such conditions has been estimated at 180 seconds as the perception becomes completely distorted and sky all too quickly and catastrophically becomes ground. Phil of course had that rating, and much more, but even then the flying is extremely hazardous. To call him an experienced pilot would be to so understate his skill level as to border on the absurd.
It’s a rarified position in very demanding work which as a MEDEVAC pilot is as much a calling as a job. Flying in all conditions and under all kinds of extreme circumstances, MEDEVAC prides itself on being there when needed and knows that its immediate presence on site can often spell the difference between life and death. In this demanding work, Phil rose to the highest possible Army grade for a helicopter pilot.
Phil began his service as a warrant officer, in a series of service grades that the Army reserves for those with special skills. Almost all Army pilots are warrant officers, and warrant officers as a whole comprise only 3% of total Army personnel. The grades rise from Warrant Officer 1 to the highest grade of Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CW5), a commissioned officer rank roughly equivalent of a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army’s usual commissioned officer ranks. As a CW5, Phil served as the Massachusetts State Aviation Safety Officer, a role that fit well with his master’s degree in homeland security and disaster management. CW5s are described by the Army as “master level technical and tactical experts who support brigade, division, corps, echelons-above-corps, and major command operations. … CW-5s have special leadership responsibilities within their commands, [and they also] provide leader development, mentorship, advice and counsel….” And anyone fortunate enough to have had Phil as their leadership developer, mentor, adviser, or counselor was a fortunate person indeed!
Even while he was doing his service in the National Guard, Phil was also serving as a firefighter in Bridgeport, having begun his firefighting training with the Wilton Volunteer Fire Department while still a Wilton high school student. He rose in the ranks with the Bridgeport Fire Department, from firefighter to engineer, training officer, and safety officer to pumper engineer and fire lieutenant, a post from which he retired just last year.
Great as Phil’s many accomplishments, what stood out especially and always was how much he loved his family. Our hearts go out to his widow, the much-loved and admired Miller-Driscoll teacher Robyn Reeves and to their daughter Rebecca and son Isaac, to his mother, sisters, and brother, and also to his father-in-law and mother-inlaw, Dave and Jan Hapke, who themselves, like their son-in-law and daughter, are such an inspiration to us all.