08/06/09 — In their city's prayers

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In their city's prayers

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 6, 2009 1:49 PM

News-Argus Video Report

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Joanna Helms, left, and Lindsey Savell, right, wipe tears from their eyes during a memorial service at Goldsboro City Hall honoring Capt. Mark "Pitbull" McDowell and Capt. Thomas "Lag" Gramith this morning.

Andrea Schaub fought off tears as she addressed the crowd of 100-plus that gathered outside Goldsboro City Hall this morning to honor two of her comrades who died July 18 in Afghanistan.

The Air Force technical sergeant did not know the fallen officers personally, but met the wives of Capt. Mark McDowell and Capt. Thomas Gramith before and after their husbands left for war, she said.

So as she spoke about her role on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base as a contact for families of the deployed, she choked up -- reliving the last time she saw Gramith's wife, Angie, and twin daughters, remembering how Angie said "all was going to be OK."

And when Dr. Allen Armstrong started with "Amazing Grace" on his bagpipes shortly after her remarks concluded, she could no longer hold back her tears.

A city, county and the military installation they share paused this morning to formally pay their respects one final time to two local heroes immortalized when their F-15E Strike Eagle crashed during a close-air-support mission last month.

4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly was one of the faces in the crowd.

"Three weeks ago Saturday, we lost two great Americans in Afghanistan," he said. "That was a fairly long weekend for a lot of folks."

Including the commander himself, who began speaking at base church services early the following day before flying to Dover Air Force Base, Del., to oversee the dignified transfer of his airmen's remains.

It was a long Sunday for Mary Beth Wallace, too.

Every day a war zone death makes news is.

Her 24-year-old son, Cody, is one of many Army Rangers currently on the ground in Afghanistan.

"I tell myself I shouldn't watch the news, but I always do. I just can't help it," Ms. Wallace said. "I mean, my baby is over there. So I watch and just pray I never hear his name."

She came to this morning's service on behalf of her son.

F-15Es and other fighter aircraft saved his life during his first deployment in 2006, he told her.

So when she talked about just what Seymour Johnson's fallen aircrew means to her, tears rolled down her face.

"Those jets, knowing they are watching over him, those jets are what keep me sleeping at night. Well, as much as a mother can sleep when her baby's in danger," she said. "So I'm here to thank those young men with families for sacrificing for mine."

McDowell and Gramith were two of hundreds of airmen from the 4th's 336th Fighter Squadron who began four-month tours in late-April.

Their mission: Executing close-air-support missions 24/7 in support of troops, like Cody, currently on the ground -- escorting convoys, responding to troops-in-contact calls with shows of force, and, when necessary, eliminating enemy threats.

Kelly, on their behalf, promoted their cause -- and vowed to continue that effort through the grief of the crash.

And he told stories about lives now being led by Afghan nationals that years ago would have never seemed possible.

"These are your American airmen. They are your guardians of freedom and justice," he said. "They go there to liberate a population."

Goldsboro Mayor Al King agreed.

"They are focused like a laser on their job," the retired Air Force officer said. "I will stand by them and I dare anyone to try to move me."

And then there was Tech. Sgt. Schaub, who urged those in attendance to do the same.

"Let the deaths of these young men be something to build on," she said. "Tomorrow is not promised."