Diary of a tragedy: Naval Academy family buries a son in Annapolis

by Tim Prudente
The (Annapolis, Md.) Capital

Chapel bells ring as the guard marches to the hearse.

The bells stop and the tourists watch in silence at the U.S. Naval Academy, some clasping their hands, some removing their hats.

They see the ceremonial guard lift a black casket from a black hearse on a bright, spring day. They hear a drum roll and watch this casket, draped with a U.S. flag, carried in the chapel Wednesday.

The 20-year-old midshipman’s body is brought to where his grandparents married. His casket is carried down the aisle, then placed between the pews.

The chaplain says:

“Let us commit to God Hans Paul Loewen.”

March 24, 9:57 p.m.

Tonight I set up this (online journal) to make it easier to share Hans’ progress and details of his journey through his recovery … Hans has several skull fractures, several broken facial and jaw bones … I will update here as often as possible, most likely late every evening. We love all the calls … It sometimes takes a struggle like this to realize how much someone is truly loved. Hans is loved!

– Jennifer Loewen, Hans’ mother

In the chapel, the 7th Company officer takes a drink of water, breathes deeply, and begins the eulogy for Midshipman 3rd Class Hans Loewen.

Loewen died last month while in a coma at a Baltimore hospital, one week after a skateboarding accident at Assateague State Park, months after winning a skateboarding competition and wearing his Navy sweatshirt to the podium.

He died after all those afternoons kite-surfing near his home in coastal North Carolina, after teaching the boy next door to surf and his father to skateboard.

“Life is radical,” says Maj. Carrie Stocker. “Hans taught me that.”

Hundreds of midshipman listen, some wiping tears.

Later, they’ll remember again: Hans dancing, Hans strutting like a fashion model for laughs; nights spent talking with him, chewing over life, stargazing; how he encouraged his high school cross-country team to lower their shorts and moon passing cars.

In tribute, academy classmates signed his surfboard, hung in the dorm.

Stocker continues.

“I watched all his skateboarding and kite-surfing videos.”

She swallows hard.

“I showed all of Hans’ videos to my 6-year-old son, Alex, who now slides his G.I. Joes across our hardwood floors … making them jump and do flips and says, ‘Look mommy, it’s Hans.’”

March 29, 3:15 p.m.

Hans’ earthly body expired peacefully this morning due to the extent of his injury and other health complications. His spirit will continue ... as his vibrant organs and tissues will sustain many others … Uncountable times during his brilliant 20 years we would crank the stereo and dance and sing to his song … We did this again for the last time today as he headed off.

Hans was camping at Assateague with other midshipmen on March 22.

That day, they rode kite boards and surfed. Hans posed for a selfie photograph with a wild pony.

His picture was shared with his parents, Eric and Jennifer, and his older sister, Zatha, who graduates this spring from the academy.

That night, Hans rode his skateboard while holding a moving Jeep. He wore a helmet. When his board touched a tire, Hans fell and was hit by the Jeep.

Other midshipmen offered first aid. Hans was flown to a nearby hospital, then to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. He was put in a medically induced coma and lived one week.

Navy football player Will McKamey had died days before after collapsing during a spring football practice. Midshipman 1st Class Max Allen died in February after his vehicle was found submerged in an academy creek.

The night Hans was hurt, police say at least one midshipman there had been drinking. They’re investigating, along with the Navy.

The Loewens have asked that no one be charged.

April 2, 10:26 p.m.

What these boys were doing wasn’t immoral … We all seem to forget what it was like, or can’t imagine what it’s like, to be young … Please don’t kill yourselves with “what ifs” … The doctors tell us that air was suddenly introduced into his brain at the moment of the accident. I believe that fresh, cool, salty air found its way in to replace his fresh, cool, salty soul.

He was the man who would save the world.

Esquire magazine wrote that in 2009 about Eric Loewen.

He’s a former Navy officer with a Ph.D. in a “fiendishly complicated type of engineering,” the magazine wrote. He’s a nuclear scientist behind a reactor that burns waste without producing carbon dioxide and might halt global warming.

He’s also a father who encouraged adventure. He was himself a downhill skier, once racing at 60 mph.

As young parents, there was no TV in their home for Hans and Zatha.

“They had to read and go outside and develop an adventuresome spirit,” Eric says. “I have to live with that.”

Jennifer doesn’t regret it.

Her mother lived and worked in Annapolis. Her father graduated from the academy in 1960. She was born on the grounds, in an old hospital, in a room with a window to the cemetery where her son was buried.

“You have to let them be kids, let them get dirty and fall,” she says.

After the funeral, Eric lingers outside the chapel.

“I was the man who could save the world,” he says, “and I couldn’t save my son.”

April 7, 9:09 p.m.

Today, I specifically told Hans’ dear friends who were with him the day of his accident: Please do not fear ... The worst has already come — Hans’ accident and death. No one ran over Hans. He fell beneath the wheel. His last day with his best friends was awesome. He is at rest. And we will be fine with time. Do not harbor any guilt, or fear of the future. We love you guys and look forward to seeing you all continue to embrace and enjoy life … I know that we have sorrowful times ahead of us — I miss Hans so badly I physically hurt in my chest — but I will do my best to choose not to let the sorrow consume me, and instead choose joy.

From the chapel they walk, hundreds of midshipmen, across the bridge to the cemetery, beside the building where Jennifer was born.

The band plays as they gather, some holding hands, some hugging around a new grave.

“Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust,” the chaplain says. “The Lord bless him and keep him.”

The ceremonial guard marches forward with the black casket. The flag is folded and offered to Jennifer. Rifles fire in salute, and the bugler plays. It ends.

Most midshipmen walk back, though some linger to kneel, to touch the casket.

By now, Jennifer’s journal entries have been read by academy alumni and families, by grieving parents across the country, more than 50,000 times.

April 7, 9:09 p.m.

Many of you reading this didn’t know or love Hans, or know and love him as much as others, and your lives are already moving on, or maybe even never stopped like it did for us. We don’t begrudge your happiness … I am just hopeful and hoping that each of us don’t lose the lesson … The lesson is to choose going forward ... choose to enjoy your life.”

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