Two from SJAFB killed in jet crash
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 19, 2009 2:00 AM
4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly expresses his respect for the sacrifices made by two F-15E crew members who died in a Saturday morning crash in Afghanistan during a press conference he held hours after the news reached Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. The incident occurred about 3:15 a.m. Kabul time.
Air Force officials released Sunday the names of the two Seymour Johnson Air Force Base airmen who died when their F-15E Strike Eagle crashed in eastern Afghanistan Saturday morning.
The airmen, who were recovered by U.S. and Coalition forces shortly after the crash, which occurred around 3:15 a.m. Kabul time near Ghazni Afghanistan, were identified as Capt. Thomas J. Gramith, 27, of Eagan, Minn, and Capt. Mark R. McDowell, 26, of Colorado Springs, Colo., both members of the 336th Fighter Squadron Rocketeers.
The cause of the crash is under investigation, but officials say they have all but ruled out hostile fire.
The crash brought the the war in Afghanistan home to Wayne County early Saturday morning when Air Force officials notified the 4th Fighter Wing that the two men had died.
Retired Air Force colonel and Goldsboro Mayor Al King said he was devastated when 4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly called him Saturday morning.
"For a Saturday morning, or any morning, it's the worst thing we could hear," he said. "When you read about (a troop being killed), it's always bad. But when they are family, that's even more devastating."
Troy Pate, 10-time local Military Affairs Commission chairman and active chairman of the North Carolina Advisory Commission on Military Affairs, shared the mayor's grief.
"Over the years, (my wife, Joyce, and I) have come to know many of these young people very well," said Pate, who has been an active advocate for Seymour Johnson for 30-plus years. "So something like this makes us realize the frailty of life. And it makes us appreciate even more the tremendous sacrifices they are making on behalf of this great nation."
Current Military Affairs Commission chairman Dr. Mike Gooden said hearing the news was "shocking," but that he and others will now turn their focus to honoring the crew's memory -- and supporting their families.
"These young people are true patriots and our hearts and prayers go out to the families of these fine young airmen," he said. "Of course, we'll do anything we can to help the families."
Members of the 4th's 336th Fighter Squadron, currently deployed from Seymour Johnson to Bagram Air Base, are charged with flying close-air-support missions in support of troops on the ground 24/7 -- escorting convoys, responding to troops-in-contact calls with shows of force, and, when necessary, eliminating enemy threats on the ground.
And that means their job is still no fail, Kelly said, despite the grief he knows each must now be feeling.
"They need to compartmentalize this event. You cannot perform and grieve at the same time," he said. "You want to give respect for their service? ... Then you have to go out there and continue their tasking. The 18-year-olds on the ground need us now more than ever."
Saturday's crash produced the first combat-related deaths of Seymour Johnson airmen since Operation Iraqi Freedom.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones was in Goldsboro Saturday afternoon and acknowledged the community's loss.
"It deeply saddens me and my heart aches anytime I hear of our men in women in uniform paying the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms," he said. "These men and women are our heroes. My deepest sympathies go out to their families."
King agrees with Jones.
"These are the heroes. These are our heroes," he said. "Every time they get in one of those airplanes, they are putting their lives on the line for us. So let us all appreciate more and more what they do. Without them, our lives might be a living hell."
Base officials have yet to plan a memorial service for the fallen Rocketeers.
They have not even released their names.
So for now, flags hanging at half-mast and discussions between senior leaders and those airmen under their command will tell the story that is still unfolding both at home and abroad.
Kelly said most base personnel already know about the death of their comrades.
And those who don't will be briefed as soon as possible.
"Our airmen deserve to be told face to face," Kelly said. "They deserve more than just an e-mail from me. This is the most important lesson on the cost of freedom."
Both Kelly and King said those sacrifices will certainly be honored -- inside and outside the Seymour Johnson gates.
And their families and friends will find arms extended -- whatever they need to get through the pain that accompanies such a loss.
"Unfortunately the crew is gone, but they have friends and family and colleagues, and we can certainly reach out," King said. "Even when it's difficult. It's extremely difficult for me."
For complete coverage of the crash - and local reactions - see Monday's News-Argus or follow www.NewsArgus.com.