“Aircraft five minutes out!” boomed a disembodied voice over a giant loudspeaker, breaking the reverend silence of over 1,000 gathered on the flight line at Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach. The men and women of the 106th Rescue Wing stood at respectful attention, surrounded by the family and friends of three heroes that were returning to their home base on Long Island.
The growing thump-thump-thump of three approaching rescue helicopters gradually displaced the quiet scene and the assembled crowd gave a slow and solemn salute or hand-over-heart as the aircraft flew by at low altitude, each with a flag-draped coffin of the fallen inside. It was an unusual but fitting mode of transport from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, which is the entry point for all in our nation’s military uniform who make the ultimate sacrifice overseas. After the mortuary at Dover finishes its required work, the remains of the fallen travel to home bases for dignified transfer to waiting families. Normally a large military transport plane, such as the Wing’s HC-130 Hercules, would complete this sacred mission but the 101st Rescue Squadron of the Air Wing, to which the four lost airmen were assigned, insisted that they do this important work.
The last flight in a helicopter for Capt. Chris “Tripp” Zanetis, Master Sgt. Chris Raguso and Tech. Sgt. Dashan Briggs would not be the tragic crash that took their lives in Iraq but a flight home to the 106th on March 27, back to their families and loved ones. The remains of the fourth casualty, Capt. Andy O’Keeffe, traveled back to Tampa, Fla., at the request of his family. The remembrances, tributes, wakes, funerals and burials would soon commence, with the families now bearing the unbearable burden of this loss.
Military families serve on equal footing with their loved ones. They experience the great anxiety of watching their soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coastguardsmen depart for long periods in harm’s way. They most often do not know the dangers faced and the incredibly difficult conditions of service. They wait in quiet solitude for their loved ones to return. When their worst nightmare of learning that a husband, wife, mother, father, son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, brother or sister will not be coming home, they continue to serve their country through their unimaginable grief and forever sacrifice. These 106th families will continue to serve alongside other Wing families who now wait in silent sacrifice for the return of their airmen.
The tragedy did not end this mission, so other brave and selfless Americans from Long Island’s 106th continue their essential life-saving work in Iraq, which continues to be a very dangerous place. Some were departing on the very same day they grieved during the dignified transfer on the airfield. They must fight through the pain of the loss of their brothers and travel 6,000 miles away to save lives of people they do not even know, as they have done for so many years.
During this Easter season, over two billion people on planet Earth will rejoice in the resurrection of a man who said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” We can take comfort in knowing of those who have shown this love by dedicating and living their lives as in their Rescue motto: That Others May Live.
Photo caption: Aircraft from the 101st and 102nd Rescue Squadrons perform a low level flyby over Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach shortly before landing for a dignified transfer of the repatriated remains of three Airmen on March 27. (Credit: Air National Guard/Staff Sgt. Christopher Muncy photo)
Col. Michael Canders served as commander of the 106th Rescue Wing from 2002 to 2009. He currently serves as director of the Aviation Center at Farmingdale State College.