Emerging from the fog: An Airman's journey through loss, healing, new beginnings

by Senior Airman Matthew Lancaster
51st Fighter Wing PAO

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- On the way to the hospital, after nine-months of anticipation, Luke and JoAnne Lokowich were getting ready for what's typically the most important moment of a married couple's life. Hours later, the memories and happiness were overtaken by grief and sadness as JoAnne, after giving birth to daughter Avery, suffered cerebral hemorrhaging due to an aneurism and died.

The loss was shocking and overwhelming for Luke, whose life had been flourishing personally and professionally. In a matter of two hours, his entire narrative has been twisted, and in the succeeding years, he would have to face not just living in tragedy, but challenging himself to emerge from it, all while raising Avery, honoring his past, and finding strength in the future.

Lt. Col. Luke Lokowich, now the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron commander and a U-2 pilot at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, is now remarried with two additional children: Abigail and Jacob, with his wife Lindsey. Avery is 15 years old and a freshman in high school. The journey to new love, and new family, was a challenging trek for Luke, and one that seemed far-off and unlikely 15 years ago.

"It was very much a difficult mixture of joy and happiness," said Luke. "I've got this new baby, but at the same time this sinking feeling of 'oh God, what do I do?'"

Immediately afterwards, Luke experienced huge changes including learning how to care for a new born while preparing for a funeral and grieving the loss of his wife.

"For a couple of months it was foggy," he said. "I withdrew to just core tasks of eating, sleeping, and staying clean. I did that for myself and for Avery. I did the things I needed to do to survive and to make sure Avery was safe and healthy."

His world askew, Luke relied on the generosity and kindness of others to help him start healing.

"I had a lot of help from friends and family," said Luke. "Each person would take a week and a half or however much time they could muster just to get me through that initial part. I had a small group of friends at Barksdale Air Force Base that I went through copilot initial qualification training with in the B-52. They became my closest friends and in many cases closer than some of my family members...That's what kept me in the Air Force; I joined for the air planes, I stayed for the people."

There are many coping mechanisms for people who experience tragedy. Luke went through a litany of methods, including alcohol, spirituality, exercise, and work.

"Alcohol makes you forget for a little while, but it's a terrible method for coping with stress, loss, or anything else," said Luke. "As a mid-twenty year old officer in a flying squadron I probably consumed just as much as anyone else but it's terrible for solving problems. It causes more than it solves. For a little while there it was rough going and I probably drank more than I should have. I was glad I was able to find other outlets."

Through several ways of bonding and experiencing friendship, Luke was able to slowly heal.

"One was spirituality," said Luke. "It is certainly fantastic to get involved with a religious group of people who have similar experiences. It was tremendously beneficial getting together with people who also had their lives crumble around them."

Physically, Luke found solace in work outs like running, which gave him a chance to exercise his body while exorcizing his mind.

"Exercise is fantastic, a great stress relief," said Luke. "It's a social activity, especially around Shreveport, Louisiana where we were living. I probably got into better shape than I have ever been in. It's great for stress release. You've got a lot of time to think about things. At the end of it you could probably have some questions answered."

Finally, work provided an outlet for Luke, who credits flying with igniting his recovery.

"Work could be a good coping mechanism just to take your mind off of things," said Luke. "It was on my first flight following JoAnne's death that I received a real, alcohol-free reprieve from parenting and began to heal."

Luke said flying is an indescribable joy where he can escape from the chaos of a flawed world. He became interested in flying airplanes at a young age due to the influence of his mother. This experience went on to shape his life, not only inspiring him when he was young, but giving him the fortitude to persevere in the darkest moments of his life.

Enduring for years with the help of friends, faith, exercise, and work, one day, Luke was ready to revisit his past. He remembers looking at pictures of his lost wife as a turning point which inspired him to move forward in life.

"For whatever reason after lunch I started looking through old photographs (of JoAnne) and they were starting to cause me a lot of emotions," he said. "I forced myself to continue looking at the pictures and allowed those emotions, the tears, the loss, the sorrow, and the guilt to continue coming out. At the end of this time I grabbed all my favorite pictures and I went down to the frame shop on base and asked to frame all of them. It was after that day I felt much better and knew that there was going to be something on the other side. To this day that frame picture hangs in Avery's bedroom, pictures of her mother."

Once he was able to move forward, he was able to find new love and begin to start a new family.

"You know when I met Lindsey, I think some people would argue that I entered a relationship with her sooner than I should have," said Luke. "I was very fortunate that Lindsey was placed in my path... She would stop by my house to help me fold laundry. We would talk about the day, about Avery, about JoAnne's family and about that loss. We weren't so much dating as she was helping me move through this."

Luke and Lindsey now have a family of their own with children: Abigail and Jacob, 9-year-old twins, and Avery. Luke said he often sees remnants of JoAnne in Avery.

"JoAnne is walking, living, breathing, and smiling through her daughter," said Luke. "I've got a beautiful kid that acts just like her mother and she never even met this woman but she's got those pieces and parts of her. When I argue with my 15 year old, it's like JoAnne is right there. She is her mother's daughter for sure."

Moving forward with Lindsey subjected Luke to scrutiny from other people. Some criticized his decision to remarry two years after the loss of Joanne.

"It was hard for some family members to accept that I was starting to have an interest in somebody else," said Luke. "There were a lot of people that didn't come to the wedding. For those critics I would tell them that 13 years later it was a good decision. I'm more happily married today with Lindsey than the day I got married to her. If you have healthy methods as a way to recover and move forward from tragedy then no one can judge you on the amount of time it takes."

After all the grieving and the coping, Luke decided to celebrate JoAnne's life. He believes her passing has taught him that family is important and it should never be taken for granted.

"Sometimes I feel like we have so much safety in our society that tragedy doesn't strike often enough to realize how good the good times are," said Luke." "I still like to have nice things just like everyone else and have needs, wants, and things that I care about. But they don't rise to the level of importance as my family. That was probably JoAnne's biggest lesson to me that I can always thank her for. She left me with a desire to be a better husband and a better father. I didn't know what it could be like without JoAnne and now being married a second time I fully understand what it could possibly be without Lindsey and I'm not interested in doing that."

After the mourning process, Luke said he thinks celebrating his passed love is the right thing to do.

"I think JoAnne would absolutely want me to celebrate her life as opposed to mourning it," said Luke. "That's always been my choice."

Fifteen years after that tragedy that shook his life, Luke is more grateful for what he has and what he's had, than what he's lost. He said he wants people to know that, while life can be harsh, life can also be better.

"There are a lot of people that turn to thoughts of suicide, alcohol or other abusive behavior, or they just close themselves up from everybody," said Luke. "My advice is to celebrate the things worth celebrating and sometimes that's the person that's gone."

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