Gravity and Granite Walls

Ray and sons at Columbus Air Force Base, August 2011

UXBRIDGE, MA – May 24, 2018 – IYAAP Blog – Gravity culled a training jet from the skies above Columbus Air Force Base this week. Fortunately, both pilots ejected and rode their parachutes to safety as their T-38C Talon II was pulled to an uncontrolled impact with Earth. No one on the ground was hurt. Gravity’s impact isn’t always so forgiving.

The Gene Smith Plaza memorial wall at Columbus Air Force Base honors the lives of pilots who flew at the base and were killed in military aircraft accidents. Although the list of names has grown since our family last visited in 2011, as pictured above, we are lucky that no names will be added as a result of this week’s incident.

Last Memorial Day, I was given the great privilege and even greater responsibility to address a hometown crowd at the ceremonies of the day. I wanted to tell the story of classmates, friends, brothers, and sisters, whose names are carved into granite walls on military bases and hometowns across the United States. Sadly, I know far too many.

I chose to share a combination of my memories and words that others have written about two of my Air Force Academy classmates, who were killed in combat, and Captain Gregg Lewis, my brother-in-law, uncle to my three sons and godfather to the one in the middle, who died in a helicopter accident in 1998. I wanted people to know more about these men than where their names have been chiseled into granite walls.

Below, I am sharing the text of my address from last Memorial Day. Please read. Please share. Please never forget the ultimate sacrifice that these brave souls have made to ensure the freedoms the rest of us enjoy. Gravity and granite walls – they both suck.

Memorial Day Address, 2017, Uxbridge Town Common

We gather on this Memorial Day to remember and honor our fallen heroes. I have walked alongside our annual Memorial Day parade for the past decade or more, following the Uxbridge middle school and high school bands in which all three of my sons have marched and played. For the past five or six years, my son Jackson has been one of our trumpeters playing “Taps” when we pay our respect to the dead. But this is my first time participating in the parade, itself, and I thank you for having me.

I received my commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force 30 years ago this very weekend at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs along with nearly 1,000 other young men and women. Most of us went off to flight school upon graduation to become pilots. Today, I’d like to share the stories of a couple of my classmates and one other fellow alumnus who followed us several years later.

Captain Pat Olson, was a big, tough kid with a great sense of humor from Washington, NC. My roommate had introduced us our sophomore year, and we became friends. We hung out in a big group of best buddies on weekends in downtown Colorado Springs.

Pat drove a red Delta 88, a giant boat of a car, that had no top, and he loved to torture his passengers in the back seat by treating them to the bone-chilling air of the Colorado night sky at 60 miles an hour. I remember screaming, “It’s cold! It’s cold!,” at Pat for an hour on a drive back from a road trip to Denver, 60 miles north of the academy. The guys in the front seat were kept warm by the windshield and the heater. Pat just laughed at me and the other freezing fools in his back seat. Whenever Pat drove for the night, there was always a fight about who had to sit in the back of the Delta 88 after sundown.

After graduation and flight school, Pat was assigned to fly the A-10 Warthog, and after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Pat’s unit shipped out to the Persian Gulf. During his deployment, Pat had been “adopted” by fourth-graders at St. John Parish School in South Milwaukee, WI, and in these pre-internet days, he spent much of his time in the desert penning letters to the children.

“I live in a tent with four other pilots and we have very little privacy,” Pat told his young pen pals. “However, the food and showers are both hot. The Army isn’t so lucky.”

On February 27th, 1991, while on his 38th combat mission in Saudi Arabia supporting Operation Desert Storm, Pat’s role as a Forward Air Controller was directing other warplanes toward the Iraqi tanks. The weather was cold, and there was an overcast cloud deck about 3,000 feet above the ground. Pat had to fly in and out of the clouds, low to the ground, to spot enemy movement and then pass the information to the fighters.

Upon receiving a radio call from Army troopers, who believed Iraqi tanks were about to pull an end run on their position, Pat dove his Warthog beneath the clouds, banked sharply, and threw his 57-foot wing almost vertical to the ground to aim at the Iraqi armor to prevent them from gaining a battlefield advantage on our troops. Pat diverted the Iraqis’ attention. Gunfire erupted around him, and the Iraqis shredded his jet.

Pat’s jet had taken so much damage, he had to fly on one engine and the third backup flight control system, but he was able to maneuver back into the clouds and escape the battle toward friendly lines.

Pat attempted to land his crippled jet on a sand airfield, but the damage was too great. With no hydraulic pressure left to support his landing gear, his wheels collapsed, his OA-10 flipped over and cartwheeled down the runway. Pat did not have time to eject.

Captain Olson’s name is etched on the Air Force Academy War Memorial in Colorado Springs for his sacrifice and dedication to this country during the Persian Gulf War. He left behind a young widow, Robin, his high school sweetheart.

Major LeRoy Homer, Jr. was another classmate of mine. I didn’t know LeRoy like I knew Pat Olson, but we both studied the same major in school, and we had many of the same classes. You may not recognize his name yet, but all of us here today know part of his story.

LeRoy was a soft spoken guy from Plainview, NY, and his close friends describe him as having a heart of gold. He had dreamed of flying since he was a young boy and began flying lessons at age 15, working part-time jobs after school to pay for them. He completed his first solo at 16, and by the time he entered the Air Force Academy, he had a private pilot license.

LeRoy began his military career flying large cargo jets at a base in NJ. He served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and received commendation for flying humanitarian operations in Somalia, an assignment that put his life at risk. He received many awards and medals during his military career and was even named the 21st Air Force Aircrew Instructor of the Year in 1993. After resigning from active duty in 1995, LeRoy continued flying with the Air Force Reserves and as an airline pilot with United Airlines.

That same year LeRoy met Melodie, his future wife. Introduced by friends, they communicated by phone and eventually met for the first time at LAX airport. Melodie wondered if she would recognize LeRoy on their 3,000-mile blind date. “Easy,” LeRoy told her, “I’ll be the one in the pilot’s uniform.” Two years later, they were engaged and married in 1998.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, LeRoy was flying as the co-pilot with Captain Jason Dahl on United Flight 93. There were 37 passengers on board the flight that day, including the two pilots, five flight attendants, and four hijackers. Once airborne, the pilots received messages from United Airlines dispatch that said “beware of cockpit intrusion. 2 ac [aircraft] have hit the wtc.” Melodie also sent a message to her husband through the cockpit computer system.

When the cockpit door was breached, FAA’s air traffic control center in Cleveland could hear LeRoy declaring “Mayday” amid the sounds of a physical struggle in the cockpit. The plane was turned toward Washington, DC, and it was later determined that its target was the US Capitol.

As the hijackers attempted to fly the aircraft, what they didn’t realize was the automatic pilot had been manipulated in a way that made it difficult for them to fly the Boeing 757. They are heard on the cockpit voice recorder saying “This does not work now.” and then a minute later “Inform them, and tell him to talk to the pilot. Bring the pilot back.” Meanwhile, the passengers and flight crew found out about the other attacks and came up with a plan to take back the plane. The pilots, the crew, and the passengers of United Flight 93 all fought back, and in doing so, they saved Washington, DC, from an attack. United Flight 93 was the only hijacked plane that day not to hit one of its intended targets.

LeRoy received many awards and citations posthumously, for his actions on Flight 93, including honorary membership in the historic Tuskegee Airmen and the Congress of Racial Equality’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Award. Major Homer’s name is etched on the Air Force Academy War Memorial in Colorado Springs for his sacrifice in the Global War on Terror. His name is also etched into the National September 11 Memorial in New York City and on a monument in a field in Shanksville, PA. LeRoy left behind a young widow, Melodie, and a young daughter, Laurel, just five weeks before her first birthday.

The last person I’d like to tell you about today is Captain Gregg Lewis. A 1992 graduate of the Air Force Academy, I didn’t meet Gregg until he attended pilot training in Columbus, MS, where I was stationed as an instructor. We met in a social setting, and we became friends through the girls we dated: sisters, who both attended a local college.

Gregg graduated from Clarke Central High School in Athens, GA, in 1988. He was a popular student leader and co-valedictorian of his class. He played football and was elected captain of the track team his senior year, running the mile and two-mile events. Gregg was known for his drive, determination, and his unselfish desire to put the team first.

Gregg graduated from the Air Force Academy in the Top 100 of his class in 1992. As a flight school student, Gregg told me that unlike most Air Force pilots, who dream of flying fighter jets to shoot down bad guys, he wanted to fly helicopters so that he could rescue good guys. Gregg went on to become a helicopter pilot in the elite 66th Rescue Squadron, whose motto translates from Latin to “These things we do so that others may live.”

After having served a 20-week tour of duty in Kuwait on just three days’ notice, Gregg rotated back to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where his squadron trained when they weren’t deployed to Areas of Conflict. They practiced flying low and fast to evade radar, anti-aircraft artillery, and surface-to-air missiles. They practiced flying through fierce weather to simulate desert sandstorms. And they practiced at night, using the new night vision goggle technology to find and rescue downed Air Force crews.

On the night of September 3rd, 1998, Captain Gregg Lewis set out in one of two Pave Hawk helicopters to practice a full-scale rescue of a downed pilot. The four-hour mission took both six-man crews about 55 miles north of Las Vegas in a mountain region that reaches heights of 6,800 feet, where they simulated having to fight their way into and out of the battlefield. The weather was bad. There were no lights. All 12 men involved used night vision goggles. Both 65-foot long helicopters were fully loaded with ammunition.

To this day, some 19 years later, nobody really knows what happened that night. Flying at low altitude, there was no radar contact with Nellis Air Force Base. There was not believed to have been any emergency signal. The helicopters were due to return from their mission shortly after midnight…but they didn’t.

Around 4:30 a.m., search crews found the wreckage to both aircraft and determined a mid-air collision had occurred. All twelve crew members were killed in one of the worst training accidents in recent Air Force history. Because of the fuel and ammunition on board, the wreckage burned for nearly three days.
For his service and dedication to this country, Captain Lewis’s name is etched into a monument at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and on a granite memorial wall at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi. Gregg left behind a young widow, Laurel, my wife’s sister. They did not have any children, but they did have family who loved them.

That week, Rachel and I flew to Las Vegas to pay respect to our fallen brother-in-law, and we brought the two sons we had in 1998, Ben and Jackson. In addition to being our sons’ uncle, Captain Gregg Lewis was Jackson’s godfather. The trumpeter who has played “Taps” at this very parade for the past five or six years to pay tribute to the honored soldiers from Uxbridge, and who, like his uncle, ran the mile and two-mile for his high school track team, had to say “goodbye” to his godfather at four months old before they ever met.

For each name engraved on our town’s memorial monuments, there is a story of a man or a woman whose life ended much too soon. Today, celebrate the freedom that the sacrifices of our heroes has provided. Enjoy a holiday cookout with your family. Take a ride in a convertible – but not after sundown. Fulfill a lifelong dream – like learning to fly. Tonight, remember these men and women in your thoughts and prayers. Remember their service and their sacrifice. And think about the families they’ve left behind. Then, tomorrow, I ask you to do something more. Tomorrow, I ask that you honor them in your deeds.

The Air Force teaches three Core Values: Integrity First, Service before Self, and Excellence in All We Do. My classmates, Pat and LeRoy, and my brother-in-law, Gregg, exemplified the value of “Service before Self” in how they lived and how they died. I am not asking you to run out and join the military, but I am asking you to honor the sacrifices our soldiers have made for you by making time to serve others.

After your cookouts today, donate non-perishable food items to the People First Food Pantry – especially with summer coming when families with children who typically eat meals at school are home for the summer. Visit the Senior Center to lend a hand and brighten someone’s day. Coach a baseball or a soccer team. Send a letter to a soldier. Participate in town government, and take pride in fulfilling your civic duties. And in closing, I ask that you do these things with the intent to serve others, to make our community better, to make our country better, and in doing so, you will be honoring the sacrifices of our fallen brothers and sisters.

May God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America.

Thank you.

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