When Ashley Bugge imagines the ocean — the slapping of waves, Hawaii’s crystal-clear water, seabirds soaring, and the gentle movement of the boat her husband loved so much — she feels both anxious and hopeful.
The conflicting emotions are understandable. When the Gold Star wife dons her scuba gear for a memorial dive near Kewalo Basin off Waikiki, Hawaii, on Sunday, May 19, it will have been 364 days and in the exact location that her husband, Ensign Brian Bugge, passed away in an off-duty diving accident.
The couple had been certified scuba divers since 2015, but on the day of the accident, Brian Bugge was using a rebreather device that allows divers to recycle air. Tragically, the 35 year old did not turn on his oxygen supply for his rebreather, and within minutes, he sank to the ocean floor.
“In death, a lot of hidden things pop up from people’s lives, but with Brian, he’s exactly the person [in death] I knew him to be,” Ashley Bugge said. “With him, I got all the good stuff.”
And even though she’s nervous to return to the waters where her best friend took his last breath, the memorial dive — her first since before the accident — will also be part of “the good stuff.”
There’s no second chance to celebrate the one-year anniversary, Ashley Bugge asserts. “I don’t want to be afraid and miss out on this opportunity. I’m afraid I would regret it [if I didn’t dive].”
“So I’m going to suck it up and I’m going to do it,” she said.
Thirst for adventure
Brian Bugge’s resolve stems from a five-year marriage drenched with wanderlust and a drive to seize the day. Raised in the Pacific Northwest, both Brian and Ashley Bugge loved travel and the outdoors, living by his personal motto of “No bucket list!” No one is guaranteed one more day, he theorized; therefore, instead of making lists with future goals, one should simply do it.
The nation received a front-row seat to this philosophy in 2017, when Brian Bugge completed a permanent change of station from Washington to Hawaii, not via airplane, but on the “Stay Gold”, a 36-foot Morgan 36T sailboat. The journey, covered by several media outlets, took three weeks.
“He was the most humble person and couldn’t understand why so many people were interested [in his unusual PCS],” Ashley Bugge laughed. “He was all, ‘I’m just doing something I want to do. I think what I’m doing is cool, but why are they taking an interest?’”
Given how good Brian Bugge was at his job, plenty of Navy personnel had taken an interest in the father of three. It was only 10 years before he rose to the rank of chief petty officer, for instance, and in August 2017, he was commissioned as an officer.
His successful military career mirrored his family life, too. Brian and Ashley Bugge married in 2013 and welcomed Isabel and Hudson, now 4 and 2, in quick succession. The foursome were world travelers and were thrilled with the move to Hawaii. Island life allowed them to spend even more time on the water and with each other.
But then came May 20, 2018. Ashley Bugge was six months pregnant when her husband died, leaving her with the decision to either deliver daughter, Adeline, alone, or move to the mainland to birth near Brian Bugge’s family. She chose family.
“There have been a lot of late nights by myself [feeding Adeline], waking up every night, answering questions from toddlers,” Ashley Bugge said. “They want to know, ‘Why can’t we FaceTime Dada? Why can’t we go to Hawaii and see him?’”
Yet in a small way, on May 20, Brian’s children will be able to do just that.
Living Reef Memorial is a company that transforms cremated remains into artificial underwater ocean habitats. The owner contacted Bugge to offer his company’s service free of charge after reading the Bugges’ story.
Therefore, Ashley Bugge, alongside 12 of her husband’s dive buddies, coworkers and friends, will travel approximately 100 feet underwater to place Brian Bugge’s memorial in the area he was exploring on the day of his death. The group, accompanied by a dive boat, will sail there on the “Stay Gold”.
“I just know without a doubt that Brian would be so stoked,” Ashley Bugge said. “He would think this [living reef memorial and dive] is just the coolest thing.”
Though Living Reef Memorial could have placed Brian Bugge’s ashes, Ashley Bugge, who will not be using a rebreather, wanted her husband’s remains to be handled one last time by those who knew and loved him best.
“This past year has really been about me and my journey and my grief,” said Ashley Bugge, who recently finished a memoir on her marriage, travels and widowhood. “I recognize everyone who knew Brian experienced their own grief as well, and I wanted to give them the opportunity to say goodbye, too.”
Those people include many of the ensign’s military brethren. The Navy, as well as the global military community at large, has played a significant role in her and the children’s healing, Ashley Bugge says.
“All of Brian’s commands have sent flags and condolences,” Ashley Bugge said. “The military brotherhood, that family community that you hear about all the time — I’ve experienced it and I’m just grateful.”
With a catch in her voice, Ashley Bugge says her husband would have expected nothing less.
“I can feel his excitement and encouragement, pushing me,” she said.
Just like he always did and always will.