Family of fallen Marine fulfilling his dream

Posted at 6:46 PM, Sep 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-16 21:46:49-04

A woman is doing all she can to keep her Marine brother's legacy alive.

Imagine if one of your loved ones passed away before he or she could fulfill a dream. That is what happened to Camp Pendleton-based Marine Capt. Thomas John Heitmann on Sept. 19, 2011.

"I miss his laugh a lot. I miss his sense of humor," his sister, Rachel Christensen, told 10News as she fought back tears.

Christensen would do anything to see his smile again. He was her baby brother, and she could not have been more proud of him.

"He wanted to give back constantly," she said. "He always had other people on his mind."

Heitmann made up his mind to fly when he was six years old, and it only made sense for him to serve as a Marine pilot.

Christensen finds some comfort knowing he was doing what he loved when he passed.

"I got a phone call from my dad, and he said, 'There's been an accident,'" she explained.

Heitmann and Maj. Jeffrey Bland were on a training mission when a bird strike snapped their Cobra helicopter into three pieces before it crashed down on Camp Pendleton.

"My dad's voice was shaking on the other end of the line and he never does that unless it's super devastating news," Christensen added.

The names were officially released after the crash, so she clung to disbelief.

"I was like, 'OK, so it still might not be Thomas' … calling his phone and texting him," she said. "And then his picture popped up, and I was like, 'No' … and it was pretty hard."

Christensen needed to feel close, so she started driving his car and digging through memories at his high school track meets in Illinois.

"I brought my zoom lens and I was getting pictures of him running around the track, and it was so exciting," she added.

She was a proud big sister as he shattered four school records. Their school did not even have a track, so they practiced on the streets around the school.

"It's very hard on your shins," Christensen explained. "We all got shin splints and ran through it, and it was awful."

Before his helicopter went down, Heitmann called the school and said he wanted to change that.

"And now, we're trying to pick up that baton for him, so to speak, and honor and remember him," she added.

Christensen hopes fulfilling that dream will have him smiling from above.

She said they have raised $100,000 of the $500,000 they say it will take to build a track.

For more information on the effort, visit