AFRICOM service members go on Memorial Day mission to honor fallen
By Master Sgt. Ray Bowden, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa Public Affairs June 2, 2011
CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti - More than 35 Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) servicemembers climbed aboard two CH-53 Super Stallion Helicopters on May 30, Memorial Day, and traveled to some of Djibouti’s most remote regions to honor CJTF-HOA members who lost their lives in two separate aircraft accidents.
This memorial flight, as it has come to be known, held a considerable level of importance for one of the passengers, U.S. Air Force Chaplain (Capt.) Aaron Klaves, who led the joint-service members through short devotionals at each location.
“This event is one of significance and weight,” Klaves said, before climbing aboard one of the large helicopters parked on the Camp Lemonnier flight line. “We’re on this mission to pay tribute to men and women who gave their lives in service to their country. What could be more important?”
The group’s first stop was atop a rocky plateau in the Godoria Range along Djibouti’s northern coast. On June 23, 2003, two CH-53 helicopter crews were gathered around their aircraft on this high ground to observe a B-52 Stratofortress on maneuvers when an M117 general purpose bomb exploded, killing U.S. Marine Capt. Seth Michaud and injuring eight others.
The second leg of the mission took the group to a desolate beach on the Gulf of Aden where, on Feb. 17, 2006, two CH-53 helicopters collided in mid-air, killing eight Marines and two airmen, and injuring two others.
At each accident site, CJTF-HOA servicemembers talked quietly among themselves while some looked out in silence over the Red Sea. At the Godoria plateau, others touched the twisted remnants of the helicopters as if to confirm that the events actually occurred.
During the devotionals, Klaves read aloud the names of those who perished and a wreath of flowers was laid near each wreckage site.
“Our job is inherently dangerous,” U.S. Navy Religious Programs Spc. 2nd Class James Decker said. “It’s noble to defend your country and this event presents us with a moment to say ‘thank you.’ What you hope to happen on Memorial Day is for Americans to understand and appreciate the decision her young men and women make to serve their country.”
U.S. Marine Capt. B.P. Sanders, HMH 464 CH-53 pilot and section lead for the memorial flight, had never visited the accident sites before.
“This memorial flight brings with it a constant reminder of those we have lost,” Sanders said. “It was the best mission I’ve flown here so far " a mission of honor and fulfillment. It really shines a light on their sacrifice.”
CJTF-HOA members have participated in annual memorial flights since Memorial Day 2004.