By Joe Parrino, Fort Campbell CourierDecember 18, 2008
FORT CAMPBELL, KY -- The polished panels on Fort Campbell's monument to the Gander tragedy reflected likenesses of Soldiers, widows and maple trees.
The community came together the morning of Dec. 12 marking the 23rd anniversary of the Newfoundland plane crash that killed 248 Fort Campbell Soldiers on their way home from a peacekeeping mission.
"This loss of life affected so many people in such a small span of time," said Col. Bill Hickman.
Hickman commands the Strike Brigade, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, that suffered the Army's worst troop loss in a single day since World War II.
On Dec. 12, 1985, Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, were looking forward to Christmas with their families and loved ones. They had just completed a six-month mission in the Sinai Peninsula as a part of the Multinational Force and Observers.
An international partnership has maintained an armed presence there since 1982 to deter military build up in the border region between Egypt and Israel.
The DC-8 plane carrying the Soldiers from the 502nd and 11 other units had a layover in Gander, Newfoundland to refuel. According to Canadian aviation authorities, Arrow Air Flight 1285 stalled moments after take-off and plowed into a wooded slope about one-half mile from the runway. All onboard, including eight crew members, perished.
Hickman said the Soldiers died, like so many in Strike's 57-year history, answering their nation's call to duty.
"The 3-502 has always stepped forward," Hickman said. "They've always said, 'Send me.'"
The ceremony was held in its traditional venue at the Gander Memorial Park. A black stone monument faces a grove of 248 trees, each a living monument to one of Gander's fallen.
Hickman delivered a eulogy about the importance of the peacekeeping mission and the sadness that swept the nation when the Soldiers died so close to home. Then President Ronald Reagan visited Fort Campbell to comfort the grieving families.
After Hickman's remarks, he and Command Sgt. Maj. Scott Schroeder laid a wreath in front of the monument. The officers and the Strike units in attendance saluted as the bugler played Taps.
Nearby stood two women, Malinda Jo Parris and Yang Metcalf, who share a unique bond since losing their husbands in the tragedy. They have also attended all 23 wreathlayings.
"I can't imagine being at the memorial without [Metcalf]," Parris said.
Parris' former husband, Chief Warrant Officer Rudy Parris, was a pilot and Metcalf's husband, Staff Sgt. Rayvon L. Johnson, was an infantryman. So normally, the two wouldn't have associated.
But that awful Thursday, which Parris describes as "the day the earth stood still," was a feeling only few could understand.
The shock was particularly cruel because it came in the weeks before Christmas, Parris said.
"I went from the pinnacle to the absolute bottom in a flash," she said.
Parris spent the night before checking over her preparations for Rudy's return. There was halibut, steak and chocolate pie in the refrigerator, all her husband's favorites. Malinda scrubbed and tidied. She walked in every entrance to see what Rudy might see when he stepped into the house.
Rudy's Christmas present was also wrapped underneath the tree. Parris and her husband were hunting enthusiasts and she had bought him a new firearm. She couldn't wait to see the look on his face.
In the predawn hours, the phone rang. It was Rudy calling from Gander to tell his wife that the plane was about to leave. He gave her an expected time of arrival and said goodbye.
The conversation was the last the couple ever shared. Rudy Parris' remains were one of the last to be identified. His wife held the funeral more than three months after the crash. Since then, she has preserved his memory by attending both Fort Campbell and Hopkinsville's memorial every year.
In recent weeks, Parris was cleaning when she came across the gift that Rudy never got to open. The gun was still wrapped.
"Unwrapping it would put more finality to it and you don't want to do that," Parris said.