National Guard remembers Airmen, Soldiers killed in fatal plane crash 11 years ago

Written by  //  March 4, 2012  //  Feature Stories

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By Sgt. 1st Class A.J. Coyne
Virginia Guard Public Affairs

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (March 4, 2012) – Family members, friends and fellow Airmen from the 203rd RED HORSE Squadron gathered at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach March 3 to honor the 18 unit members and three Florida Army National Guard aviators who were killed in a military transport crash 11 years ago.

Master Sgt. Al Dirosa (center right) and his wife Becky Dirosa of Norfolk escort Camille Shelby around the 203rd RED HORSE memorial March 3, 2012. Shelby's son, Tech Sgt. Dean Shelby of Virginia Beach, was one of 18 members of the 203rd RED HORSE Squadron killed when their plane crashed March 3, 2001 in a cotton field near Unadilla, Ga. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs

The Virginia Guard engineers and three Florida aviators from Detachment I, Company H, 171st Aviation Battalion were killed on March 3, 2001, as the 203rd members were returning home after completing a two-week military construction project at Hurlburt Field, Fla. The C-23 Sherpa they were flying in crashed in a cotton field near Unadilla, Ga. 

Because of inclement weather, Saturday’s ceremony was held in the 203rd RHS auditorium, where a frame with photos of the fallen Airmen was displayed. 

“Right around this time 11 years ago today, in similar weather to this, 18 203rd Horsemen were coming back from a two week deployment to Hurlburt Field, Fla.,” said Lt. Col. Pete Garner, the commander of the 203rd RHS. “That day will be forever engrained in our minds. We can all probably remember exactly where we were on the fateful day. That day our nation lost 21 skilled warriors. But many lost sons, fathers, husbands, brothers, fellow Horsemen and friends.” 

The C-23 crash was the worst peacetime aviation disaster in the history of the National Guard, and the worst loss of life in the Virginia National Guard since World War II. 

“We’re here today to honor and recognize the men for whom the memorial was built, for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Garner said. “Each year we take time to honor these fallen heroes and what it means to be a Citizen Airman and Soldier. We don’t take this commitment lightly because we know there is a price to be paid for the freedoms we enjoy in this great nation. May we never forget the sacrifices of those who came before us.” 

Garner then read the names of the 18 Airmen and three Soldiers who perished 11 years earlier. Following that, a color guard laid a wreath of flowers at the base of the displayed frame. 

After the ceremony, the weather had cleared up enough so the families and friends could go outside and enjoy the memorial built to the fallen Airmen. 

The memorial takes the form of a reflection or meditation garden complete with the unit’s mascot: a life-size, rearing red horse. The 30,000-square-foot memorial also includes a large bronze Minuteman statue rising up from a clear pool in front of a waterfall, and a second red horse. This horse kneels in front of a memorial made from a 7,000-pound, black granite boulder with the names of the 21 National Guard men etched into its one polished surface. 

Encircling the border of the memorial is a winding path embracing 22 Bradford pear trees, and a plaque at the base of each tree honors each one of the Guardsmen. The 22nd tree bears a plaque honoring those who died during the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, which took place four days before the groundbreaking of the 203d’s memorial on Sept. 15, 2001. 

The memorial incorporates ideas from several 203rd members and used a range of the construction skills found in RED HORSE units. Members of the 203rd, assisted by RED HORSE units from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Washington, Montana and Texas, built most of the memorial. 

RED HORSE stands for Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers, and the unit provides a highly mobile civil engineering response force to support contingency operations worldwide. 

203rd RED HORSE Airmen lost in the crash:

- Master Sgt. James Beninati of Virginia Beach, Va.
- Staff Sgt. Paul Blancato of Norfolk, Va.
- Tech. Sgt. Ernest Blawas of Virginia Beach, Va.
- Staff Sgt. Andrew H. Bridges of Chesapeake, Va.
- Master Sgt. Eric Bulman of Virginia Beach, Va.
- Staff Sgt. Paul Cramer of Norfolk, Va.
- Tech. Sgt. Michael East of Parksley, Va.
- Staff Sgt. Ronald Elkin of Norfolk, Va.
- Sgt. James Ferguson of Newport News, Va.
- Staff Sgt. Randy Johnson of Emporia, Va.
- Senior Airman Mathew Kidd of Hampton, Va.
- Master Sgt. Michael Lane of Moyock, Va.
- Tech. Sgt. Edwin Richardson of Virginia Beach, Va.
- Tech. Sgt. Dean Shelby of Virginia Beach, Va.
- Staff Sgt. John Sincavage of Chesapeake, Va.
- Staff Sgt. Gregory Skurupey of Gloucester, Va.
- Staff Sgt Richard Summerell of Franklin, Va.
- Maj. Frederick Watkins of Virginia Beach, Va.

Florida Army Guard Soldiers lost in the crash:

- CW4 Johnny W. Duce of Orange Park, Fla.
- CW2 Eric P. Larson of Land-O-Lakes, Fla.
- Staff Sgt. Robert F. Ward Jr. of Lakeland, Fla.

 Photos from the 10th Anniversary Memorial Service:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/vaguardpao/sets/72157626064560525/

 

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