07/21/09 — Honoring the fallen

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Honoring the fallen

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 21, 2009 1:46 PM

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Goldsboro Mayor Al King, center, takes a moment early in Monday's council meeting to express his feelings on the 4th Fighter Wing airmen killed in Afghanistan as other members of the council bow their heads. The speech was followed by a moment of silence.

With eyes closed, members of the Goldsboro City Council bowed their heads Monday evening to honor two Seymour Johnson Air Force Base officers who died this weekend in Afghanistan.

Mayor Al King called it a moment of silence.

But to those who showed up inside City Hall, it seemed to last far longer. 336th Fighter Squadron Capt. Mark R. McDowell and Capt. Thomas J. Gramith were killed early Saturday when their F-15E Strike Eagle crashed in the vicinity of the country's Ghazni Province, marking the first combat-related deaths suffered by Seymour Johnson since Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The lack of similar tragedies since, though, has not made this most recent one any easier for the local communities that surround the base to take.

"By all means, keep the families of these heroes in your prayers," King said to the crowd. "And more than that, reach out to those still wearing the uniform."

Wayne County officials are still coping, too.

Like commissioner Andy Anderson, a Vietnam-era fighter pilot, who said he understands well what those members of the 336th still deployed to Bagram Air Base are going through.

"I've been in situations where we lost people, and it's hard," he said. "But when you're in an aircraft, you are there to support somebody else. You're not just doing it for yourself. You're doing it for a team -- your neighbors, your friends, your country. So you have to move on."

King, a retired Air Force colonel, agrees.

"It's no doubt that they have an added burden on their shoulders," he said. "So we can certainly do whatever we can to support their families and their comrades."

Those still at war have little choice but to compartmentalize the event, they said, so both city and county officials feel a sense of duty to keep spirits high back home -- and to move on with their own missions despite the grief they, too, are feeling.

"It's hard because there are a lot of things you want to do but there is not much you can do. We can't bring (McDowell and Gramith back). We know that," Anderson said. "So we just have to try to be there for the people who need us. And as a county, we know that this could happen to another couple, so one of our biggest goals is to make life as comfortable for them as we can while they are still here."

As their Monday meeting came to an end, members of the City Council still had those two young airmen on their minds.

So before they left, each, in his own way, again asked the community to rally behind Seymour Johnson.

"Remember the two airmen who lost their lives for our freedom this weekend," said Jackie Warrick.

"I would urge everyone to pray for the families of captains McDowell and Gramith," added City Manager Joe Huffman.

And then there was King, who, with head bowed again, asked the citizens of his saddened military town to reflect and pray -- before, on their behalf, thanking the fallen for their commitment to the cause of freedom.

"Thank God that we do have volunteers who are willing to put their lives on the line," he said. "And by all means, keep these heroes in your prayers."