DALLAS — When he left the Air Force after eight years of flying a C-17 through the dangerous skies of places like Afghanistan, Nate Cavender still wanted to find a way to serve his country.
He found that opportunity with Carry the Load and an opportunity to keep searching for the soldiers whose stories still drive his passion to honor Memorial Day.
"I wouldn't trade the experience for the world," Cavender said from his Dallas home. "I'm very thankful for being able to do that when I did it," he said of being able to serve his country.
Now, as an ambassador for Carry the Load, he told WFAA two specific stories from his time in the military to anyone who will listen.
"We got a call that we needed to divert into Kandahar to pick up a guy who was critically-wounded," he recalled of one mission in 2011.
Medics wheeled an unconscious soldier on board. He was missing most of the lower half of his body. The flight to a military hospital in Germany would have to be made at a lower-than-normal altitude to help limit the soldier's blood loss.
Cavender, the co-pilot at the time, remembers that they delivered him to the hospital still alive.
"But that night when I was laying my head down, I realized I didn't even ask what his name was," Cavender told WFAA. "And it stuck with me because, to this day, I don't know who he is, where he is, how he's doing. And I'd love to reach out to him to thank him for the sacrifices he made for us."
And a few years later, now serving as the lead pilot on another mission, his C-17 was sent to pick up a single casket. Military protocol is for each deceased soldier to be accompanied by a fellow soldier for the entire trip home.
During the flight, Cavender approached the soldier's companion to help console him. Out of respect, he didn't pry any further about how and when the soldier died, learning only that the deceased soldier was a Sgt. Peterson.
"Now I carry Sgt. Peterson with me and everyone else that I tell the story to. So to me, that's what Carry the Load is all about. It stuck with me and it was a lesson that I carry now with me the rest of my life."
Now, as an ambassador for Carry the Load, Cavender tells those stories and more as he speaks to community groups and private company functions to help raise awareness and funds for the Carry the Load mission: reminding us all of the sacrifices we should honor each and every Memorial Day.
And even 11 years after helping airlift that wounded soldier to a hospital in Germany, he'd still like to find out who he is, and if he made it.
"It would feel good, not only to be there for him, but also show gratitude," Cavender said.
Gratitude and honor that Carry the Load wants each of us to carry respectfully, too.
Information on Carry the Load's 2022 Memorial Weekend event at Dallas' Reverchon Park can be found here.