Donald Roth is an associate professor of criminal justice at Dordt University and is the brother-in-law of Seth Vande Kamp, who was killed in a helicopter crash at Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in November 2020.
When someone is taken from us in the prime of their life, part of our grief comes from the painful dissonance we feel between the tremendous potential we saw in that person and the reality that we won’t get to see them live the hopes and dreams we had for them. We all know, on some level, that God’s plans do not depend upon our plans, but tragic loss pits us against the full reality of this truth. It is sharply painful, and it’s not always easy to reconcile God’s providence with a sense that some potential was wasted.
Seth Vande Kamp (’11) died on a mission in Egypt on November 12, 2020. Seth was a cheerful, supportive friend to classmates and colleagues alike. He was a light in the lives of his family, including his older sister, Erica, to whom I am married. He was also a beloved son of God. Although we will never fully understand why Seth was taken, God has used the testimony of friends, colleagues, and family to show us that his providence does not “waste” potential. I share Seth’s story with you so that it might concretely demonstrate this deep truth. Hopefully, it might also give comfort and confidence to us all that we do not grieve in vain.
Seth Vande Kamp was a doctor of osteopathy and a captain in the U.S. Army, where he was the Officer in Charge of the South Camp Dispensary serving the Multinational Force based in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt. On the morning of November 12, he volunteered to be part of a team delivering supplies to U.S. troops in the Sinai Peninsula.
It was his first chance to participate in such a mission since arriving in Egypt a few weeks earlier, and Seth was excited for the opportunity to fly on a Blackhawk helicopter to a nearby base. Tragically, this new adventure was cut short by a mid-flight mechanical failure. In the resulting crash, Seth and all but one of the eight soldiers on board were killed.
Born on February 6, 1989, to Kevin and Val (Vonk, ‘86) Vande Kamp, Seth grew up in the Kansas City, Missouri, metro area. His mother was a neonatal intensive care nurse, and his father was, at that time, a paramedic. In his medical school application essay, Seth recalled how his father “would share the interesting patients that he had transported to the hospital.” He fondly remembered the times his mother took him to visit her work: “She would explain to me each baby’s health issues and the treatment connected to each problem. This is where the foundation for my desire to study medicine was laid.”
In retrospect, it seems natural that Seth would eventually work in the medical field, but it took Seth time to discover this calling. Seth loved learning and, especially, reading. His sister recalls the many late nights he spent hiding with a flashlight under a blanket.
When Seth first came to college, he thought his academic gifts were leading him to a career in engineering; however, he discovered he preferred working with people over equations. Soon after, he changed his major to biology with a pre-medical emphasis.
At the same time, Seth was nurturing his love of adventure. Nathan Schaap (’11), a former roommate, says Seth went “fully nocturnal when he arrived at college, largely because he was always up for an adventure and was willing to stay up late studying in order to hang out earlier in the evening or go on a weekend trip.”
Seth would have many adventures in college, traveling through Europe, Nicaragua, and North America. Since his passing, emails and letters to the family from friends recall many instances where Seth provided care and support for others. When another student was hit in the head during an AMOR trip to Nicaragua in 2010, Seth volunteered to help remove the stitches. When a friend hit her elbow in a ceiling fan, he checked her over while she cried in pain. “He was the most gentle and considerate guy I knew,” says Nicole Ongna (’11).
As Seth’s commitment to becoming a physician grew, he began to think about how he could pay for medical school. A conversation during a visit in Washington, D.C., and with a friend who was finishing his residency at Walter Reid Army Medical Center led Seth to the Army. The Army offered a way to merge his love of adventure with his calling in medicine. Seth was commissioned as lieutenant in the U.S. Army on September 6, 2012, the same time he started studying to become a doctor of osteopathic medicine at A.T. Still University.
While school had been easy for him before, Seth had to balance his love of adventure with tougher medical school coursework. The military brought opportunities for Seth to develop his skills at hospitals in Hawaii, where he learned to dive in his spare time, and in Detroit, where he learned to provide frontline care in a difficult urban environment.
By the time Seth completed his residency at Martin Army Community Hospital in Fort Benning, Georgia, he had former obstetrics patients requesting him for their second pregnancies. One of the residency teaching faculty at the hospital summed up Seth’s service, saying, “Seth Vande Kamp chose to serve as an officer in the Army. He chose to serve others as a physician. He persevered in the crucible of internship and residency. And, for a little extra flair, when we played frisbee, he showed up with cupcakes.”
Seth eagerly anticipated the opportunity to go to Egypt for his first posting as a full doctor. He was looking forward to the chance to go snorkeling in the Red Sea, something he did the day before the accident. He was eager to face the challenge of managing a clinic, especially when the Covid-19 pandemic added new layers of complexity to that task. He moved into his new role with maturity, confidence, and competence.
In the shattering, numbing weeks that have followed his death, as Seth’s family we wrestled with making sense of his passing. As stories and memories poured in from lives that Seth had touched, I began to see the sense of lost potential in a different light.
Seth had potential for a great medical career ahead of him, but he was already a great doctor. He had been awarded the Army Achievement Medal and the Army Commendation Medal for his work at Fort Benning, and he was posthumously awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for “exceptionally meritorious service” in Egypt over his short tenure there. His colleagues and commanding officer shared effusive praise and numerous stories of the exceptional work Seth did in leading his clinic to provide care for the 1,350 soldiers stationed on base during the pandemic.
More importantly, however, God had been using Seth to bring love and comfort to others throughout his life. Cristina Phillips, a childhood friend, recounted how “high school became very hard for me, and there were few people who were nice to me, but Seth always was.”
Another childhood friend mused, “It seems fitting to see the news articles say he was on a ‘peace keeping’ assignment, because that’s what he was. He was such a peacekeeper. He was a natural leader, but in a gentle, mild way. He was so kind.”
A coworker from his residency recounted a story that I soon realized represented many of the stories we had heard:
“As a chief resident I was tasked with scheduling, and, due to a variety of circumstances, we often would be in a bind on who to pull to cover night shifts or other unwanted jobs. Seth would volunteer for these shifts when nobody else would. I distinctly remember on one occasion having a weekend call shift that needed to be covered and nobody else volunteering. Seth came in person to the office and asked about it. At that point, because he had to cover other previous shifts, I was going to cover it myself. When he learned that it was my intention to work it, he refused to let me do so. He said he didn’t have any plans that weekend. He would take that shift and not to worry about it. I drove home with immense gratitude in my heart for the time I would be able to spend with my family. He was always selfless and understanding about those kinds of things.”
God used Seth to inspire others around him to service. Bronwyn Vande Kamp, a younger cousin, was in awe of him at family gatherings. As a third grader, she couldn’t believe how quickly he could read a book, and she never forgot that this older medical student took the time to answer her questions.
He also inspired his childhood friend who shared: “Several years after high school, I was looking to join something greater than myself, and I learned that Seth joined the Army. He was an inspiration, and I reached out to him for guidance. He helped me make the decision to join the Army. He was helpful and so sweet, just as he had always been. I couldn’t be prouder to call him a ‘brother in arms.’”
Conversations like these lead me to see that God doesn’t see potential the way we do. We tend to see it as it’s presented to us in movies, aimed at some particular purpose and built up, bit by bit, until it heroically bursts forth in some grand, sweeping, life-defining achievement. We anticipate sharing in the milestones of life: from marriage to children, from promotion to retirement, because they are the defining moments of the life stories we aspire to.
But God doesn’t wait for such climactic moments but works powerfully through the quiet example of a young man curled up on a couch, enraptured by reading. He shows us his love through a friend checking in on us, seeing if we’re okay. He shows us his mercy in a co-worker, shouldering our burden so that we can better attend to our calling to love and care for our family. God does not deal in missed opportunity; he makes powerful use of us every day, whether we see it or not, and I have been privileged to see that God made powerful use of my brother-in-law throughout the days that he had stored up for Seth.
Reflecting on Seth’s life, I see in him an example that I can hope to emulate, and I can see a new truth in the words of Paul, who said in Ephesians 4, “I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t stop there, either. We have experienced the softer contours of providence, too. By God’s providence, my wife happened to have been visiting her parents in Houston when the awful news came. By God’s providence, my father-in-law, who was at first going to be gone on a business trip, was also home. By God’s providence, as we sat on the tarmac of a small regional airport, waiting for my brother-in-law’s body to arrive, the downpour that had soaked the ground all day paused just as the plane carrying Seth’s body pulled to a stop. It held off during the brief transfer ceremony as he was placed into the hearse, and then it renewed again as we returned to our vehicles to travel to the funeral home.
Through Seth’s tragic death, God has showed us that our ways are not his ways, but God has also shown us that his love is abundant, showering the family with love and support from diverse and even unexpected places. While we feel the pain of dashed hopes for what could have been, God has kindly revealed to us in many ways that he was working in and through Seth far more than we fully appreciated at the time. He also lovingly walks beside us in the darkness of the shadow of death.