FORT POLK, La. – On March 12, 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, a UH-60A helicopter transporting two injured Iraqi soldiers during a night medevac mission, crashed in the desert, claiming the lives of the four-man crew and the Iraqi wounded.
The helicopter and crew were assigned to the 36th Medical Detachment “Dustoff 33” at Fort Polk and included pilots 1st Lt. Joseph D. Maks and CW2 Patrick A. Donaldson, as well as crew members Sgt. Michael S. Smith and Sgt. Kelly D. Phillips.
In 1996, Donaldson Loop and the Fort Polk Base Operations bldg 4255 at Fort Polk Army Airfield, were memorialized with a plaque and stone monument to honor the crews’ sacrifice.
As part of the 80th anniversary of Fort Polk and to highlight the contributions of Fort Polk to the Army, a rededication ceremony was held March 15 on the 30th anniversary of the tragedy.
Lt. Col. J.D. Swinney, commander, 1st Battalion, 5th Aviation Regiment, was one of two guest speakers and highlighted the heroism displayed by Dustoff 33 in the face of danger.
“This is the 80th anniversary of Fort Polk’s tenure as the Army’s premiere training installation and this brave crew is an important part of the Fort Polk legacy,” Swinney said.
Swinney spoke of the importance Fort Polk has played in preparing Soldiers to fight the nation’s wars from World War II through today.
“We may not have the flash of Fort Bragg (North Carolina) or the mountainous views of Fort Carson (Colorado), but this installation’s team of Soldiers and civilians always find a way to get to the objective and make our Army better,” he said. “That is the legacy we are celebrating today.”
Swinney said the Base Ops building is vitally important to the JRTC and Fort Polk mission and a fitting memorial to the Dustoff crew.
“Dustoff aviators, crew chief and medics have to wake from a deep sleep at the sound of a buzzer, become immediately alert and ready to react to an incoming call for patient evacuation and are expected to launch to the point of injury in 15 minutes,” he said.
Swinney said dustoff missions are dangerous for air crews, but they continue to perform their mission.
“That is the legacy of heroism of which Lieutenant Maks and his crew were a part: A unique mission, tied to unique architecture, honoring the heroic sacrifice of Fort Polk Soldiers,” Swinney said.
Speaking to the Maks Family in attendance, Swinney said the Army names its brick and mortar structures to honor past warriors, in commemoration of their service and sacrifice.
“I think we also name our buildings in the hopes that we can somehow imbue the parts and pieces of our installation with the qualities of heroism and dedication that were so evident in the lives of Soldiers such as Lieutenant Maks,” he said. “I know that when I pass a bronze marker or a plaque on a wall commemorating past service, I walk a little taller because of the large footprints I have to fill and I check myself a little closer because I know that is what men and women like Lieutenant Maks would expect. It is no small thing what we are doing here today.”
Retired 1st Sgt. Eloy Figeroa, the second guest speaker and platoon sergeant during Operation Desert Storm, said being part of the 36th Med Det when the crash occurred was difficult for the entire unit.
“We were Family,” he said. “We were a small unit with a longing for all of us to return home, safe and sound. We were so close in getting there.”
Figeroa said in March 1991, the ground war was over and the unit preparing to go home.
“But our Dustoff Angels were still out there, trying to save Soldiers’ lives,” he said.
The 36th Med Det Family Support Group had paired single Soldiers with Families for the deployment. Figeroa said his Family had “adopted” Phillips.
“My daughter was 7 at the time and still remembers sending him a Christmas package of candy and knick-knacks,” he said. “Sergeant Phillips kept his brand new Jeep in my backyard so my wife could go out periodically and keep the battery charged.”
Figeroa said his wife remembers a call from the casualty assistance officer to make arrangements to collect Phillips’ personal effects.
“It was difficult for all of us,” he said. “I will carry the crew members of Dustoff 33 in my heart forever.”
After the ceremony, Maks’ sons, Josh and Jason, became emotional when talking about the loss of their father.
Jason, who was 16 at the time, said not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about his dad.
“We were so close,” he said. “We did everything together. I’ve tried to impart that to my son. I hope that I’ve been successful.”
Josh was 15 when his father was killed and he said the day remains etched in his mind.
“I remember looking up in class and seeing two Soldiers walk in,” he said, his voice trembling. “Knowing where my dad was, I knew what they were there for; it was devastating.”
Sue Maks said she, too, thinks of her husband every day, and wonders what might have been.
“Whenever they deploy, or go on a mission, you always worry and hold your breath,” she said. “But then they come home, and you hug them and breathe again. But sometimes they don’t come home, and even though you know it could happen, you don’t expect it, and it tears you apart.”
Maks said she appreciates the honors bestowed upon her husband and his crew.
“I know that our Family will always remember him, but it’s nice to know others will also,” she said.
The Soldiers’ hometowns were: Maks, Roseburg, Oregon; Donaldson, Corrigan, Texas; Smith, Erie, Pennsylvania; and Phillips, Madison Heights, Michigan.