By Jim Dresbach, Pentagram staff writer May 6, 2013
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va. - Four 34th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron U.S. airmen were posthumously honored April 26 during an Arlington National Cemetery honorary tree planting.
Air Force Capt. Ryan P. Hall, from the 319th Special Operations Squadron, Capt. Nicholas S. Whitlock and 1st Lt. Justin J. Wilkens, from the 34th Special Operations Squadron, and Senior Airman Julian S. Scholten from the 25th Intelligence Squadron lost their lives in a U-28A aircraft accident while deployed to Djibouti, Africa's Camp Lemonnier, after an intelligence-support mission for Operation Enduring Freedom.
The members of Ratchet 33 crashed five miles from home base, Feb 18, 2012 - 14 months later, they were honored with a living memorial near their ANC burial sites.
A new Kwanzan cherry tree, which is located at the intersection of York and Marshall Drives, has been planted approximately 100 yards from the airmen's burial site. The combined remains of the four are buried in Section 60, gravesite 10124. Scholten also has a gravesite at Section 60, gravesite 10079.
Nearly two dozen friends, family and supporters of the crew congregated to watch squadron representatives Air Force Capt. Richard Harr and his mother Deb Yates; Scholten family members Yumiko and Leon Southard and ANC horticulturist Steve Van Holten ceremoniously plant the new cherry tree. Before shovels took to the hallowed dirt, Harr spoke of the U-28A, Ratchet 33 crew and the behind-the-scenes generosity provided by the Hurlbert Field, Florida community - the home of the 34th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron.
"This event was about four months in the making, and would not be a reality today without the support from the Arlington National Cemetery staff, the donation from the 34th ESOS-deployed aircrew and the tireless work of my mother, Deb Yates, for pursuing this every day [during] the months leading up to today," Harr said. "These men volunteered their service to protect our nation's way of life and their sacrifice will not be forgotten. Today, we hope our small tribute to Ratchet 33 will serve as a symbol of continued life and an enduring place for friends and Family to reflect when they visit their loved ones."
Following the ceremony, Scholten's stepfather, Lee Southard, said that a memorial plaque honoring the four airmen which will be placed next to the cherry tree is "something that we will look into."
It was the third consecutive year the cemetery held a tree planting to commemorate Arbor Day. The ceremony took place following a horticultural tour of the grounds.