07/28/09 — Airmen honored: Forever in flight

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Airmen honored: Forever in flight

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on July 28, 2009 1:46 PM

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Air Force Photo Courtesy of Master Sgt. Brandt Smith

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News-Argus Staff Writer

Some came in uniforms, others in black suits and dresses, to remember, to honor two men who gave their lives for their country.

But those who gathered this morning at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's Heritage Park were not just there to go through the formal military honors due Capt. Mark McDowell and Capt. Thomas Gramith -- the pilot and weapon systems officer who were lost last week while serving in Afghanistan.

They were there to recount some of the memories of the men they knew as Mark and Tom -- the sons, the fathers, the best friends, the husbands.

So as they listened to the words of 4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly -- and watched him posthumously award each the Bronze Star -- they remembered -- and shared -- with the family gathered around them -- a community, a base and a wing in mourning, yet determined to make sure that the mission "Pitbull" and "Lag" started would continue without them, and in honor of them.

McDowell and Gramith died July 18 when their F-15E Strike Eagle crashed during a close-air-support mission near Afghanistan's Ghazni Province.

McDowell's father, Stan, choked up when he relived the early morning phone call that delivered the news.

He had hoped at first, he said, that the news that his son's plane had gone down in Afghanistan would yield a different result -- news that Mark was coming home.

"I prayed for a miracle," he said, as his eyes filled with tears. "The miracle God delivered was everlasting life."

So he will remember the last football game, the last golf match and the flagstone path he helped his son build at the home Mark shared with his wife.

And he will marvel at the example his son set -- as a man, as a son and as a warrior.

Those will be the memories, his father said, that he will keep with him always.

But Capt. McDowell was more than just a pilot -- a hero remembered and honored for how he died and what he sacrificed to serve.

He was a man of faith -- a man who knew that there was a life beyond the oath he swore to uphold and a true purpose in the path he chose. Mark was a young man, his father said, with a sense of self and spirit that was much more developed than it should be for his years.

It was that faith that guided him in life and will comfort his family now that he is gone.

Capt. McDowell's mother, Barbara Thomas, remembers, too.

But instead of sharing her initial reaction to the news -- or stories about the last week and the grief it has brought her -- she told the crowd about a "confident, determined young man ... who will truly be missed."

"I could talk about Mark for hours and hours," she said.

She told her son's family and friends about a young man whose faith and determination to care for others distinguished his life -- and left a mark that will not soon be erased, not just for those who loved him, but those who will continue to serve without him.

Capt. Thomas Gramith's family had memories to share, too.

His mother, Dr. Patricia O'Kane-Trombley, remembers a young man whose eyes were fixed to the sky -- she called him "the eagle," a clue to the life he would later choose as a U.S. Air Force F-15E weapon systems officer.

But heroism was not all that Thomas Gramith's mother wanted those gathered to remember.

She told stories of the Tom she treasured -- the man who adored his wife and twin daughters, the man whose antics always brought a smile, a friend and a son dedicated to taking care of others.

It is that Tom, she said, she will remember -- along with the hero who served his country with dedication and valor.

She asked those gathered to carry on, to stay safe. They were so much a part of her son's life, she added -- his family away from home.

And then she looked skyward, ever so slightly, and sent a message to her son.

"Keep watch over us as we live under your blue skies," she said.

Tears were falling for the duration of the hour-long service -- not only when bagpipes blared "Amazing Grace" while an American flag was folded, not only when "Taps" began and a four-ship of Strike Eagles performed a missing man formation in the skies overhead.

They fell when Kelly thanked the two men for the service they gave their country and the honor with which they did their jobs.

"We are forever in their debt," he said. "And they are with us yet, as we remember them."

And the tears did not stop either when a voice was heard from Afghanistan -- from the leader of the squadron with which the two men served -- a tribute from those who must go on now, even with heavy hearts.

"Make no mistake, they are heroes in every sense of the word," said 336th Fighter Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Neil Allen, through his wife. "Right now, F-15Es from (Seymour Johnson) are flying combat sorties in Afghanistan. They represent the dreams of Pitbull and Lag."

-- Editor Renee Carey contributed to this report.