April 8, 2010

203d RED HORSE Squadron, family members honor lives lost on March 3, 2001

By Lt. Col. Deb Magaldi
Virginia Air Guard Public Affairs

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Current and former 203d RED HORSE Squadron Airmen, family members and Virginia Air Guard leaders gathered for a memorial service recently to remember the 18 Virginia Air Guardsmen and three Florida Army Guardsmen who died in a military aviation crash on March 3, 2001.

  203d RED HORSE memorial

The memorial garden includes two life-size red horses – the mascot of RED HORSE units. The first horse is in a rearing position at the entrance to the memorial. The second horse (pictured here) kneels before a 7,000-pound, black granite boulder, with the names of the 21 National Guard men etched into its one polished surface. (Photo by Lt. Col Deb Magaldi, Virginia Air Guard Public Affairs)

On that day, 18 members of the 203d, based in Virginia Beach, and three Florida aviators from Detachment 1 of the 171st Aviation Battalion, died in a tragic plane crash, as the 203d members were returning home after completing a two-week, military construction project at Hurlburt Field, Fla. All 21 lives on board the C-23 Sherpa, a military transport aircraft, were lost when the aircraft crashed in a field near Unadilla, Ga.

The March 21 memorial service started with current and former unit members moving onto the memorial or reflection garden that many of the 203d members helped to build during the year following the tragedy. The RED HORSEMEN and guests formed a horseshoe-shaped column around the large granite boulder that bears the names of those that perished.

A group of about three dozen family members and relatives of those who died were then escorted to the center of the memorial garden where they were flanked by unit members.

The ceremony began with 203d RHS Commander, Lt Col Pete Garner, welcoming the family members and guests. He noted that this tribute marked nine years since that day "forever etched into our memories when the nation lost 21 skilled warriors" and the 203d community lost 18 sons, fathers, husbands, fellow HORSEMEN and friends.

  203d RED HORSE memorial

A bugler plays "Taps" March 21 in honor of the 21 Virginia and Florida Airmen killed nine years earlier. (Photo by Lt. Col Deb Magaldi, Virginia Air Guard Public Affairs)

"The C-23 crash was and still is the worst peacetime aviation disaster in the history of the National Guard, and the worst loss of life in the Virginia National Guard since World War II," Garner continued. "But we are not here to mourn the past, we are here to honor and recognize the men for which this memorial was built – for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice."

"We take time each year to honor these fallen heroes, and what it means to be citizen Airmen and Soldiers," he stated. "We do not take this commitment lightly, because we know that there is a price to pay for the freedoms that we enjoy in this great Nation – freedoms that we often take for granted. May we never forget the sacrifice of those that went before us."

As a unit with many new, young faces in its ranks, Garner took a moment to address the importance of holding the memorial service during drill weekend "so old and new members can share the memorial and reflect on the meaning of the garden and its many individual components. The trees, concrete, horses, Minuteman statue – all you see around us – were placed in this field. It is part of our proud history and our rich heritage. It is a part of who we are."

  203d RED HORSE memorial

At the center of the memorial garden sits a 7,000-pound, black granite boulder, with the names of the 21 National Guard men etched into its one polished surface. (Photo by Lt. Col Deb Magaldi, Virginia Air Guard Public Affairs)

He ended asking those gathered to keep the 203d RHS in their thoughts and prayers as the unit prepares for its third deployment to Southwest Asia.

Following the colonel's tribute, the RED HORSE Honor Guard laid a wreath at the foot of the granite monument and the bugler played Taps. The Invocation was said by Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Tom Kirles, 192d Fighter Wing.

The memorial service culminated a four-day drill period for the 203d and members of its sister unit, the 202nd RHS, Florida Air National Guard, during which the units completed the first phase of a two-part Operational Readiness Inspection. The second half of the inspection will take place during the latter half of April.

On March 3, the unit observed a moment of silence to honor and remember the lives of those, who perished nine years ago.

RED HORSE units are a rapid-response, Air Force heavy civil engineering force capable of doing airfield runway repair, performing the full range of construction activities, and setting up operational military bases in undeveloped areas.

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