07/20/09 — Heroes come home

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Heroes come home

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 20, 2009 1:46 PM

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4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly is currently at Dover Air Force Base, Del. with the families of Capt. Mark R. McDowell and Capt. Thomas J. Gramith – the air crew who died when their F-15E Strike Eagle crashed in Afghanistan — and is overseeing the dignified transfer of his airmen.

A little more than a day after the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base community -- and those outside its gates -- began mourning the loss of two local airmen killed in Afghanistan, the names of the fallen were released by the Department of Defense.

Fourth Fighter Wing officials confirmed Sunday that 336th Fighter Squadron Capt. Mark R. McDowell, a 26-year-old fighter pilot from Colorado Springs, Colo., and Capt. Thomas J. Gramith, a 27-year-old weapons system officer from Eagan, Minn., died early Saturday morning when their F-15E Strike Eagle crashed in the vicinity of the country's Ghazni Province.

Their deaths mark the first combat-related losses suffered by the wing since Operation Iraqi Freedom, when, on April 7, 2003, an F-15E crash claimed the lives of Maj. William R. Watkins III and Capt. Eric B. Das.

Hours after the names were confirmed, 4th Commander Col. Mark Kelly flew to Dover Air Force Base, Del., to meet with the mens' families and oversee the dignified transfer of his airmen. Whether or not they will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery has yet to be determined, officials said.

Members of the 336th deployed from Seymour Johnson to Bagram Air Base in April where, since that time, air crews have provided a 24/7 air power presence over the desert in support of troops on the ground -- escorting convoys, responding to troops-in-contact calls with shows of force, and, when necessary, eliminating enemy threats.

Saturday's crash occurred while McDowell and Gramith were flying such a close-air-support mission.

Local reaction to the loss has been noticeable.

Military Affairs Commission Chairman Dr. Mike Gooden said he was "completely shocked and saddened" by the news.

And Mayor Al King characterized the phone call he received from Kelly as the worst kind one can get.

"When you read about (a troop being killed), it's always bad," said King, a retired Air Force colonel. "But when they are family, that's even more devastating."

Some flags already are flying at half-mast, and the fallen and their families have been the topic of many discussions inside restaurants and chapels since the news broke this weekend.

A local organization has even opened up a fund for Gramith's family.

The Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, a group established to "provide a dynamic association of like-minded aerial combat veterans who avow patriotism and the defense of the Constitution of the United States of America as its guiding principles," will start raising money for the family now, its members said Monday morning.

The mission of the RRVFP includes, among other things, providing aid and comfort to the families of military POWs and providing aid and comfort to the surviving spouse and children of those killed or missing in action.

No memorials have been planned to date, as base and city officials both wait for guidance on how best to honor the crew from the families the crash left behind.