10/02/09 — Courage, honored

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Courage, honored

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 2, 2009 1:46 PM

News-Argus Video Report

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Beverly Carroll shares a dance with Walt Davis, who made the trip from Greenville to attend the Blue Ribbon Jam Thursday evening. The Goldsboro Police Department estimated more than 1,000 people showed up at the event to honor two 4th Fighter Wing officers who died July 18 when their F-15E Strike Eagle crashed in Afghanistan.

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Lt. Col. Neil Allen, 336th Fighter Squadron commander, speaks to the crowd at the Blue Ribbon Jam.

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Goldsboro Mayor Al King, left, presents a $5,000 check to Hal Tanner III, Goldsboro News-Argus general manager, during the Blue Ribbon Jam Thursday.

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Madeline Edwards, 14, evoked tears from many in the crowd when she sang the national anthem. Some called it the best live performance of the song they had ever heard.

An outpouring of love.

That is how 4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly described the aftermath of the F-15E crash that claimed the lives of two of his airmen in Afghanistan July 18.

"So proud" -- how Goldsboro Mayor Al King said he felt to witness the military town he calls home rally behind the Air Force Base it houses.

Grateful -- what the service of the men and women currently stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base makes Natalie Winstead, and why she stopped a young man wearing a 336th Fighter Squadron T-shirt as he walked down Center Street Thursday evening toward the Blue Ribbon Jam.

"Excuse me young man," she said, as he paused and turned to face her. "I just wanted to say, 'Thank you' for what you did."

Members of the Goldsboro Police Department estimated that more than 1,000 people turned out Thursday to honor the service of 336th Capts. Mark McDowell and Thomas Gramith.

And by the end of the event, the fund established to support the families they left behind had surpassed $26,000.

More than $17,000 of that total came in before the Blue Ribbon Jam.

"As we looked for a way to express our sympathy to the families of these airmen and to, in some small way, help carry the burden to provide community-wide support ... our staff created the Blue Ribbon Fund," said Hal Tanner III, general manager of The Goldsboro News-Argus. "The readers of the News-Argus responded in overwhelming fashion. ... And, while financial support to these families cannot assuage the loss of their loved ones, the message is clear: We care about the men and women that serve this country and protect the freedoms that have been earned through the hardships, sacrifices and goodness of and within our airmen."

Jerry Thomas made the drive from Mount Olive to show his support -- to donate $50 to the cause.

For the Vietnam veteran, it was simply "duty."

"No one honored the men who died alongside me like this," he said. "So this is real special. It makes you proud to see how far this country has come since my day."

Mary Chambers agreed.

"We back our troops around here," she said. "Goldsboro always has."

Her sister, Evelyn, smiled and nodded her head.

"That's just the way it is. These people in uniform have always had our backs and we'll always have theirs," she said. "I don't care what other people say. They fight for us and so we'll fight for them."

336th Commander Lt. Col. Neil Allen said his young men and women could feel that support at Bagram Airfield in the days and weeks that followed the crash.

Maybe that is why, despite their grief, they never stopped taking the fight to the enemy.

"That mission goes on and they never flinched and they never skipped a beat," Allen said, looking toward those members of his squadron who turned out for the event. "We all learned the power of community and the power of togetherness."

Kelly said that kind of support does not exist in all military towns -- that when he meets with leadership from other bases that fall under Air Combat Command, he hears stories about lawsuits and noise complaints.

"But I don't have those problems. The only problem I have is that I cannot match the love that comes toward my base," he said. "It's not something we can repay. It's not something we are even going to try to repay, because we would fail at every chance."

For a comprehensive look at all those who contributed to the Blue Ribbon Fund and Blue Ribbon Jam, see Sunday's News Argus.