Remembering our fallen Airmen

  • Published
  • By Col. William DeMaso
  • 23rd Wing vice commander
It was an early wake-up Thursday, June 17. The usual dew was in the air, but not a sound of any wildlife, for even they know that 2 a.m. is a time when nothing good happens.

However that morning King 03, one of our own HC-130E Hercules aircraft took a sobering journey west to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., and Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

Sixty-nine passengers and crew climbed aboard for a 5:30 a.m. departure into slowly brightening skies as the sun made her way toward the horizon behind us. With favorable winds and no weather ahead, the five hour and 15 minute flight arrived two hours prior to the first major event at Davis-Monthan AFB.

In an aircraft hangar at the eastern end of the Davis-Monthan AFB's flightline was the making of a gathering to honor two fallen Airmen of the 23rd Wing from the 48th Rescue Squadron.

There was a platform placed in front of large bleachers, which had flower arrangements, large poster board pictures of each fallen comrade as well as two M-16 rifles, bayonets buried, with hanging dog tags and helmets perched atop.

There was a capacity crowd of standing room only, easily filling in the 1,000 seats.
Tech. Sgt. Michael Flores' family sat on the left side of the aisle while Senior Airman Benjamin White's family sat on the right.

The families were surrounded by commanders and their spouses, and behind them were the members of the fallen Airmen's units.

At the front and orchestrating the event was Capt. Stephen Colletti, 48th RQS director of operations, who welcomed the family, friends and colleagues who had come so far to pay their respects.

Following the posting of the colors, a beautifully-sung National Anthem by an Airman of the 48th RQS, the chaplain's invocation and some words of endearment by Col. Billy Thompson, 563rd Rescue Group commander, there was over an hour's worth of words of remembrance by friends and family.

Sergeant Flores' wife, Tech. Sgt. Marisa Flores, showed the utmost of strength and character as she recounted their years together, admitting she learned more from him than he would ever appreciate.

Their young children, Eliana and Michael Jr., sat on relatives' laps, seemingly oblivious to the proceedings, but the words of her daughter hung in the air after Marisa learned of her husband's fate, "Just take deep breaths and let it out, Mommy."

Airman Whites' father delivered a moving eulogy, explaining how he had seen his son struggle to find his path in life, trying, succeeding, failing and yearning for something greater.

With a family background of service in the U.S. Navy, he was nudged gently in that direction but found his interest at the Air Force Recruiting office when he learned about the pararescue career field.

In the end, Mr. White left us with the thought that he would not want to change a thing: that Ben had found his calling, and he died having succeeded in his life's ambitions.

As the ceremony drew to a close, both Airmen were presented Purple Heart and Air Force Combat Action Medals; as well as an Air Force Commendation Medal for Sergeant Flores and an Air Force Achievement Medal for Airman White.

Then, seven Honor Guard members formed up outside the hangar's door with a spectacular blue Arizona sky in the background; shots rang out as the 21-gun salute reverberated and "Taps" echoed throughout the hangar.

Two HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters performed a breathtaking fly-by, with pararescuemen sitting in the open doors, capping a solemn and moving morning.
Following the memorial service, the crowds gathered at Davis-Monthan Mirage Club to console each other, to talk to families and to heal.

Tired but not deterred, King 03 reformed their crew and passengers, and launched for Nellis AFB, arriving by 3 p.m. nearly in formation with a Patrick C-130 and another of our wing's C-130's from the 79th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan AFB.

We were all parked in front of the Thunderbird hangar, which also happened to be the memorial's location, and as we walked through to our busses waiting to whisk us to billeting, it was apparent that more attendees showed than Nellis AFB had originally anticipated.

After realizing this, Master Sgt. Steve Mahoney redirected his crew and they spent until 11 p.m. reconfiguring the hangar to accommodate the unexpected crowd. It was fortunate that the change was made, for there were nearly 1000 seats filled to capacity and standing room only in the rest of the hangar.

At the front, behind the raised platform, was one of the HH-60Gs from the 66th RQS.
To either side of the raised platforms were four chairs for four members of each squadron, the 58th RQS on the left and the 66th RQS on the right.

Although the family of Staff Sgt. Smith could not attend, the family of 1st Lt. Joel Gentz sat in the front row, again with commanders and their spouses to their right. The muffled sobs of Kathryn, Lieutenant Gentz's wife, gently filled the hangar. Col. Gary Henderson, 23rd Wing commander, opened the ceremony touting the many proud accomplishments of the rescue community over the years.

The level of effort today in Afghanistan is the new rescue "heyday," and more than 500 souls can thank our rescuers for their services in just the last six months.

There were words by squadron members describing the full and budding lives of Lieutenant Gentz and Sergeant Smith, followed by a most professional synchronized flag folding ceremony by four of Nellis AFB's Honor Guard.

Using undetectable eye signals, the movements and precision were breathtaking. But the sobs grew louder as Lt. Col. Andrew Reisenweber, 58th RQS commander, knelt at the feet of Mrs. Gentz and quietly presented her the flag in remembrance of her husband.

What followed next was probably one of the more difficult actions by any member of the squadron.

Master Sgt. Darell Howard, the 66th RQS first sergeant, took stage center and began, in a strong and commanding voice, a final roll call for members of the 66th and 58th RQS.

After calling several Airmen and hearing the response, "present sir" he reached Lieutenant Gentz. Repeating "Lieutenant Joel C. Gentz" and hearing nothing, he then moved on to "Staff Sergeant David C. Smith."

Hearing nothing again, the First Sergeant then moved to the 24-inch brass bell and gave it two solid clangs. As the sound from the bell slowly left our ears, the Honor Guard's 21-gun salute sounded, followed by two trumpeters playing Taps.

Many remained in the hangar for more thanan hour after the ceremony, meeting and greeting old friends, sharing stories, and putting closure to a loss that will forever change the men and women of the rescue community.

Thanks to the professional crew of King 03, led by Col. Darryle Grimes, 347th Rescue Group commander, Team Moody returned safely to the arms of their loved ones to continue the mission with a renewed appreciation and respect for the professionalism and dedication of all the Airmen in the 23rd Wing.