AXTELL, Neb. — Cheryl Schepker is a member of a club no one wants to join.
She became a Gold Star Mother on May 12, the day the helicopter her son, 29-year-old U.S. Marine Capt. Dusty Lukasiewicz, was piloting crashed in the mountains of Nepal during a mission to rescue earthquake victims in a remote village.
Dusty, a 2003 graduate of Wilcox-Hildreth High School, was killed along with five other Marines, two Nepalese soldiers and five civilians they were transporting for medical care.
Details about the accident, attributed by U.S. Marine Corps investigators to poor weather and the crew’s decision to take a more direct, but unfamiliar, route from the village to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, are in a 6-inch-thick binder that the chief investigator hand-delivered to Schepker’s Axtell home.
“As hard as it is, and I’ve said this throughout, there are worse ways to lose a child. There was no suffering,” Schepker said.
Dusty’s crew delivered food to a village the morning of May 12 and was eating lunch when a 7.3 magnitude earthquake rattled Nepal. An April 25 quake that measured 7.8 on the Richter scale had initiated the U.S. aid mission.
The crew brought three injured civilians from a mountain village back to Kathmandu for medical care. On the next mission to a different village, the helicopter disappeared during its return flight.
Schepker was at work as RN coordinator at Good Samaritan Hospital on May 12.
Two days earlier, she had enjoyed a Mother’s Day visit with Dusty on her iPad using the FaceTime app. He had sent her favorite candy, See’s chocolates.
“He was thrilled about his mission,” she said, smiling at the memory of their last conversation. “He had a big grin on his face that was priceless.”
Her first hint of concern on May 12 was a phone call from her supervisor, Dr. Lissa Woodruff, who was at a Denver conference and saw a news report about a lost Marine helicopter in Nepal.
“She asked if I had heard from Dusty today. My heart stopped. It’s not the kind of thing people ask,” Schepker said.
A co-worker saw the squadron identification online. She knew that only three of the squadron’s helicopters were sent to Nepal. “You’re thinking, there are three. What are the chances that it’s my boy?” Schepker said.
Stirred into the uncertainty were some “all fine” messages from Nepal that turned out to mean that no U.S. military personnel were injured in the second earthquake.
Schepker went home, where friends and family had gathered. As she sat on her front porch, a black SUV circled the block three times and stopped.
Capt. Jack Young, who has become the family’s liaison with the Marines, and another officer from Omaha confirmed the missing helicopter was Dusty’s. “The feeling was unimaginable,” Schepker said.
She and her husband, Kris, arrived at Dusty’s California home near Camp Pendleton, the home base for four of the Marines, on the morning of May 13 to wait for news with Dusty’s wife, Ashley, and daughter, Isabelle, now 2.
“They were searching during our nights (because of the time difference), so the Marines knocked on the door in the middle of the night to say the helicopter had been located. Then the next night, there was a knock on the door again, and they confirmed there were no survivors,” Schepker said, her voice breaking. “So I got that knock on the door three times, which is not fair.”
Schepker had worried about her son earlier in his career, especially when he piloted a helicopter “in the thick of it” during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2012.
“He would drop soldiers and higher-ups from one place to the other. He talked about destroying drug (poppy) areas,” she said. “Otherwise, he didn’t talk much about Afghanistan.”
She knew Dusty was fulfilling his dream to fly and see the world. “He talked about how beautiful everything looked from the sky, and he even thought some places looked a little like Harlan County,” she said, referring to the landscape around the home between Ragan and Huntley where she raised Dusty and his sisters, Danielle Kersten of Grand Island and Nicole Ingram of Minden.
Schepker wasn’t as worried about Dusty’s mission in Nepal, partly because she didn’t know the dangers.
“I’m not a real big worrywart, but I probably will be now. I have faith. I feel we absolutely have someone looking out for us all the time. I know Dusty did, too,” she said. “I don’t know how anyone would get through this without that.”
Even with that certainty, there were times during the waiting days in California when she couldn’t speak a full sentence, even when praying. “It was just please and thank you,” she said of her pleas to God.
She knew Veterans Day without Dusty would be hard. Just as the June 10 birth of his son, Dustin Mark, was hard, and his June 17 birthday was hard and Father’s Day was hard. “I just want to get all these first ones behind us,” she said.
For now, Schepker takes life one day or even one hour at a time.
She said cards and letters from across the country and care and support from people with military ties, co-workers, friends, relatives and several Nebraska communities, especially Wilcox, have helped her get through the past six months.
“I went through Dusty’s stuff a while ago,” Schepker said. “I’m so glad I didn’t part with a lot of it.”
Dusty had started going through the treasures of his youth when he came home in July 2014 to buy land near Farwell that he planned to make his family’s home after his Marine Corps service ended.