- The symbolism of Sunday's snow storm could not have been lost on the men and women gathered at Fort Campbell's Gander memorial site.
- Families, friends and comrades in arms huddled under blankets of Army green to honor the 248 Soldiers and eight crewmembers who perished.
- The Gander crash is the worst peace-keeping plane crash in U.S. military history.
- Fort Campbell pays tribute annually to those who perished.
The symbolism of Sunday's snow storm could not have been lost on the men and women gathered at Fort Campbell's Gander memorial site, for it was just such a day, 25 years ago, that marked the end of life as they knew it. On Dec. 12, 1985, Soldiers assigned to 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, lost their lives in a plane crash after serving six months on a peacekeeping mission.
On Sunday, Family members, friends and comrades in arms huddled together under blankets of Army green to honor and remember the 248 Soldiers and eight crew members who perished aboard the Arrow DC-8, which crashed in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada.
"They were our loved ones, our fellow Soldiers and American patriots," said Chap. (Maj. Gen.) Douglas Carver, the first speaker of the afternoon. "Now they rest cradled in the loving arms of Almighty God. Years have passed, but this tragedy remains fresh in our hearts."
As Carver spoke, the faces in the crowd reflected his sentiments. Guests looked on through prayers and speeches, silently remembering sons, daughters, husbands, siblings and friends who met a tragic end following a six-month peacekeeping mission in the Sinai.
Carver likened the memorial site to the book of Joshua. After God dried the Jordan River to allow safe crossing for the people of Israel, he asked Joshua and his tribesmen to build a memorial out of river stones to serve as a reminder of the miracle that had taken place.
"When our Soldiers, veterans, Families and children visit this park, they will read the sacred inscription on this granite. They will see these 248 stately trees," said Carver. "We can tell the story once again of men and women who chose to serve this nation over themselves...whose successful mission earned them the eternal reward of heaven."
Next to the podium was retired Maj. Gen. John Herrling, commander of 2nd Brigade at the time of the Gander tragedy.
"I sort of remember a day like this 25 years ago," said Herrling.
One of the first at Fort Campbell to hear the news, it was up to Herrling to break the news to awaiting Families and deal with the aftermath of the crash. While a difficult and unenviable task, he managed to get things done. He attributes his fortitude to Maj. Gen. Burton Patrick, division commander at the time of the crash, as well as the citizens of the neighboring communities.
"I also have the greatest degree of respect and admiration for the Families who lost a loved one and suffered through this tragic event," said Herrling. "Your courage, your love and your perseverance were lessons to us all."
Because of the ceremony at Fort Campbell, Herrling and his wife missed their annual trek to Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of 22 Gander victims.
"Midway down section 60 at Arlington is a row of 22 crosses, where 22 Task Force 3/502nd Soldiers lay side by side," said Herrling, his voice breaking. "Marlene and I go there almost every year along with the Families of those Soldiers. In ceremonies, in cemeteries and church graveyards across the country today, Families are gathered just as we are to remember their peacekeeper."
"As a poet once said, someone has to guard the passes," said Herrling, "and he was talking about the passes of justice and peace. The 101st has always been in that guard. God bless our Soldiers, God bless you and God bless this great country."
Following his speech, Herrling laid two wreaths of yellow at the granite wall of the Gander memorial site. Families and friends reflected in silence for 30 seconds before a bugler, standing apart from the crowd, played Taps.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, guests were invited to stroll the grounds and honor their fallen.
Joe Casper served with 3/502nd, and flew home on the flight prior to the flight that crashed at Gander.
"It was a terrible tragedy, so many young people taken just like that," said Casper. "Some of us were blessed to have made it home safely. We're here to honor the guys that didn't."
"This is my first time back to Fort Campbell since I left in 1987," said Frank Lopinsky, a former Soldier who served with the 3/502nd and returned from the Sinai on Dec. 19, 1985.
"This is a somber occasion," said Lopinsky with tears in his eyes. "I lost a lot of friends that day."
Lopinsky was joined at the site by friend and former Soldier Dave Mooty, who remembered the impromptu memorial that was held at OP 311 in the Sinai in the days following the tragedy.
"We used what we had," said Mooty. "We included a bullet and a knife for protection. We buried the eagles and American flags from our sleeves. There was a penny buried in there because none of us had any money. We put in a cassette tape, because all of us missed our music. Because we wrote so many letters home, we added a pen."
"And a watch," interjected Lopinsky, "because time stood still."
Like Lopinsky, the memorial ceremony was Mooty's first time back at Fort Campbell.
"I don't know if I'll ever come back again," said Mooty. "I just had to come back this time and say goodbye to my friends."
For many, the ceremony offered a semblance of comfort and closure to a tragedy that so greatly affected their lives. The concept was adequately summed up by Carver.
"Although flooded today with emotions, unanswered questions and unresolved grief tugging at our souls, we do have something we can hold onto: the soul-soothing memories of our loved ones who were a part of our lives for their brief time here on Earth."