Robert Ehlert: The heavens give Cmdr. Earl Kraay a send-off

Eyes on Idaho

July 15, 2014 

When Boise native Earl Kraay passed away Friday afternoon at the age of 69, it was a fitting date: July 11, the eve of the first of three supermoons. The celestial touch for a Navy aviator was the perfect flight plan.

Upon learning of Earl's death, a mutual friend described him as an "invisible hero" because few detect the depth and intensity of the sacrifice of a military family in service to country. There is no better way to describe Earl, whom I met in 1978 in Norfolk, Va., and then reconnected with last year when I relocated to the Treasure Valley.

While we civilians were going about our business and feeling safe in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Earl was putting his life on the line in service to his country. He went about this in a soft-spoken, matter-of-fact manner with the humility true heroes muster.

Earl joined the Army in 1963, right out of Borah High School - classmates might have run into him at the their 50th reunion last summer. By 1965 he was in the infantry in Vietnam, serving as a forward observer. These are the soldiers who slip out ahead on the battlefield and, at great peril, call in coordinates for artillery.

He survived his three-year tour, though a lot of his buddies did not. Upon his return in 1966 he attended Boise College, majoring in biology. Just before he graduated, he approached some Navy aviator recruiters about attending Navy Aviator Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Fla.

To no surprise, he was successful and received his commission in March 1971. Though his eyesight would prevent him from flying, he became a naval flight officer in a fighter squadron attached to the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier.

Earl became a "RIO," a radar-intercept-officer on an F-14 Tomcat - a well-armed aircraft with a place to sit strapped between two menacing engines. In the movie "Top Gun," starring Tom Cruise, that's the back seat position that tracks and fires on bogies and MiGs.

In 1978 Earl was poised to head for Iran to train some of the Shah's pilots on F-14 etiquette. A week before his scheduled departure in November 1979, Earl's Navy boss and about 60 other Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days until their release in January 1981. Fortunately for me, Earl dodged that fate, otherwise I would have missed out on getting to know and appreciate him, his wife, Carol, and their three kids (now all adults): Kate, Ed and Heidi.

Though Earl was never officially in combat, neither were Maverick and Ice. But Carol Kraay, another Boise native, has it on good authority that a Libyan MiG got sent home smoking after tangling with Earl and his mates.

The point here is we've lost another good one who was on board for more than 1,000 aircraft carrier takeoffs and landings atop what author Tom Wolfe described in "The Right Stuff" as a moving, wobbly, greasy griddle in the middle of an ocean.

Recently, I saw even more of the warrior side in the Earl of Boise. Within a few months after our July 4, 2013, reconnection, both Earl and my wife were shockingly diagnosed with cancer: Earl with metastatic melanoma and Tana with breast cancer. As they lost their hair and endured surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, Earl was an inspiration and, as they say at the Mountain States Tumor Institute, a "cancer buddy."

At 9 a.m. Thursday in the Alden-Waggoner Funeral Chapel, and then at 11 a.m. at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery, we will say final goodbyes to Cmdr. Kraay, who loved nothing more than being a father and part of a family, facing every challenge with his faith.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman's editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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