Monday, March 04, 2013

Virginia ceremony to remember Airmen, Soldiers killed in 2001 plane crash

by Cotton Puryear
Virginia National Guard

3/1/2013 - VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- The Virginia Beach-based 203rd RED HORSE Squadron plans to hold a brief ceremony to lay an honor wreath March 3, 2013, at 3 p.m. at Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach to honor the 18 unit members and three Florida Army National Guard aviators who were killed in a military transport crash 12 years ago.

The Virginia Guard engineers and three Florida aviators from Detachment I, Company H, 171st Aviation Battalion, were killed on March 3, 2001, as the 203rd members were returning home after completing a two-week military construction project at Hurlburt Field, Fla. The C-23 Sherpa they were flying in crashed in a cotton field near Unadilla, Ga.

The C-23 crash was the worst peacetime aviation disaster in the history of the National Guard, and the worst loss of life in the Virginia National Guard since World War II.

The ceremony is scheduled to take place at the memorial built to the fallen Airmen. The memorial takes the form of a reflection or meditation garden complete with the unit's mascot: a life-size, rearing red horse. The 30,000-square-foot memorial also includes a large bronze Minuteman statue rising up from a clear pool in front of a waterfall, and a second red horse. This horse kneels in front of a memorial made from a 7,000-pound, black granite boulder with the names of the 21 National Guard men etched into its one polished surface.

Encircling the border of the memorial is a winding path embracing 22 Bradford pear trees, and a plaque at the base of each tree honors each one of the Guardsmen. The 22nd tree bears a plaque honoring those who died during the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, which took place four days before the groundbreaking of the 203d's memorial on Sept. 15, 2001.

The memorial incorporates ideas from several 203rd members and used a range of the construction skills found in RED HORSE units. Members of the 203rd, assisted by RED HORSE units from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Washington, Montana and Texas, built most of the memorial.

RED HORSE stands for Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers, and the unit provides a highly mobile civil engineering response force to support contingency operations worldwide.

203rd RED HORSE Airmen lost in the crash:
  • Master Sgt. James Beninati of Virginia Beach, Va.
  • Staff Sgt. Paul Blancato of Norfolk, Va.
  • Tech. Sgt. Ernest Blawas of Virginia Beach, Va.
  • Staff Sgt. Andrew H. Bridges of Chesapeake, Va.
  • Master Sgt. Eric Bulman of Virginia Beach, Va.
  • Staff Sgt. Paul Cramer of Norfolk, Va.
  • Tech. Sgt. Michael East of Parksley, Va.
  • Staff Sgt. Ronald Elkin of Norfolk, Va.
  • Sgt. James Ferguson of Newport News, Va.
  • Staff Sgt. Randy Johnson of Emporia, Va.
  • Senior Airman Mathew Kidd of Hampton, Va.
  • Master Sgt. Michael Lane of Moyock, Va.
  • Tech. Sgt. Edwin Richardson of Virginia Beach, Va.
  • Tech. Sgt. Dean Shelby of Virginia Beach, Va.
  • Staff Sgt. John Sincavage of Chesapeake, Va.
  • Staff Sgt. Gregory Skurupey of Gloucester, Va.
  • Staff Sgt Richard Summerell of Franklin, Va.
  • Maj. Frederick Watkins of Virginia Beach, Va.
Florida Army Guard Soldiers lost in the crash:
  • CW4 Johnny W. Duce of Orange Park, Fla.
  • CW2 Eric P. Larson of Land-O-Lakes, Fla.
  • SSG Robert F. Ward Jr. of Lakeland, Fla.

Hancock Field Airman and son rescue neighbors from burning house

by Senior Airman Duane Morgan
174th Attack Wing

3/3/2013 - Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, Syracuse, New York -- Tech. Sgt. Brian Matthews, a member of the 174th Attack Wing's Communication Squadron Quality Assurance team, along with his son helped rescue neighbors trapped in a burning building February 13, 2013 in his hometown of Clay, New York.

"It was around 9:30 p.m. and my wife and I were walking our dog when we noticed a beeping sound," said Matthews. "We then realized it was a smoke alarm and noticed smoke coming from the house across the street."  Matthews feared that all nine residents in the house were inside and acted quickly in coming to their aid.

"I immediately turned to my wife and told her to call 911," said Matthews. "I then ran to the house to knock on the door the warn everyone to get out."  While running toward the house Matthews noticed some of the residents were hanging their heads out of the window to keep from inhaling all the smoke coming from the house.  "There was a mother and her two kids on the second floor of the home and I told her they were going to have to jump," said Matthews. "She told me she couldn't jump and that was when I ran across the street to get my ladder."

On his way to getting his ladder Matthews yelled to his 15 year-old son Nicolas to assist him. "By the time I got the ladder Nicolas was already outside. He was barefoot with nothing but shorts on. He grabbed the ladder from me and ran across the street."

"We then put the ladder up to the house and started bringing people down from the window," said Matthews.  The other six residents of the house managed to make it out of the house unharmed.
"There were only three people in the house," said Matthews. "The others went out the back door."

"As soon as we got the last person down from the window flames started to shoot up," said Matthews.

Matthews has known the neighbors he helped rescue for over a year. One of the residents rescued was a member of the swim team with his son.

Matthews believes that his military training played an important part in helping him remain calm during his rescue effort.  "With us being in the military, it's in our nature to be alert at all times," said Matthews. Matthews also believes the training he has received at the 174th made it easier for him to think on his feet.

His son, Nicolas, has also had some experience with saving the lives of others. He once saved a friend who fell through the ice in the pond next to their home.

Nicolas Matthews believes that if he and his dad had not been home, the night would have turned out much different.  "They probably wouldn't have made it out," said Nicolas. "If they did it wouldn't have been safely."

"I'm just glad that everyone is all good and healthy," said Brian Matthews. "I'm glad all nine people were not there."

When asked how he feels about his dad's rescue effort, Nicolas said it made him feel proud.  "I'm really proud of him," said Nicolas Matthews. "He definitely acted fast."

Task force established to close gaps between active, Guard, Reserve

by Staff Sgt. David Salanitri
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

3/4/2013 - WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Air Force senior leaders recently constructed a task force to develop the best ways to bring the active, Reserve, and Guard closer together to achieve the most capable force possible.

To meet the challenges of the future, the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force directed the stand-up of the Total Force Task Force, or TF2, to develop strategic options on the appropriate total force capabilities mix to meet current and future Air Force requirements.

"The results of this task force will inform our strategic planning and programming for fiscal 2015 and beyond, and will also serve as a resource to the congressionally-directed national commission on the structure of the Air Force that will be examining total-force issues later this year," said Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium & Technology Exposition Feb. 22.

The commission will study the structure of the Air Force to determine whether, and how, the structure should be modified to best fulfill current and anticipated mission requirements for the Air Force in a manner consistent with available resources.

The task force is led by senior leaders from the active-duty, Reserve and Guard who will work under Lt. Gen. Mike Moeller, who is the deputy chief of staff for Strategic Plans and Programs, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C., in coordination with Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve leadership.

The results of their work will inform the Air Force's planning process for fiscal 2015 and beyond. The expectation is for active, Reserve and Guard components to learn from each other, while also looking into the strengths and weaknesses of today's total force efforts.

"The determination of our leadership to break down barriers preventing us from planning and advancing as a total force will drive this effort to success," said Maj. Gen. Joe Balskus, who is the military assistant to the deputy chief of staff for Strategic Plans and Programs. "The team we have assembled from the three components and the extended team members across Headquarters Air Force, the Air Force secretariat, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve is incredibly impressive."

Over the past two decades, the Air Force has become a more integrated force, both operationally and organizationally, across the total force. As a result, senior leaders want to ensure the service is structured in a way that ensures the service can achieve its strategic objectives going forward.

"In view of this increased integration, as well as upcoming strategic shifts driven by post-Afghanistan reconstitution and the new Defense Strategic Guidance, the Air Force needs to undertake a comprehensive review of total force requirements and develop a strategic plan to ensure the Air Force correctly balances the strengths of each of the components to sustain the capabilities required in the years ahead," Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III stated in a memorandum about the task force.

Moeller said he is optimistic about the task force and the synergy it will generate within the planning community.

"Under the chief of staff and secretary's guidance," he said, "we are taking the right steps to bring our Air Force together as one team in order to collaboratively answer one of the most important questions we face as a service, 'what is the most effective balance of capabilities between the active duty, Guard and Reserve?' The task force is designed to be open and transparent, and we will need the help of all stakeholders to ensure success."

Esther Blake: First enlisted woman in the Air Force

3/4/2013 - FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- Staff Sgt. Esther McGowin Blake has the distinction of being the "first woman in the Air Force." She enlisted in the first minute of the first hour of the first day regular Air Force duty was authorized for women on July 8, 1948.

Blake originally enlisted in March 1944, in Miami in the Army Air Forces, served one year in the Alaskan division and was discharged in November 1945. She reenlisted in April 1947 and was assigned to the ground force but seized the first opportunity to return to the Army Air Forces. Service in the nation's armed forces was nothing new for Mrs. Blake.

She supported the war by working at the Miami Air Depot as a civilian employee. Blake was a widow. She joined the Women's Army Corps when she found out her eldest son, Lt. Julius Blake, was reported missing. He was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot out of England and had been shot down over Belgium. Her other son, Lt. Tom Blake was serving in B-25 Mitchell medium bombers in Italy -- he was also shot down at a later time.

At the time Blake was quoted in the Miami Herald as saying that her reason for joining the WACs was the hope of helping free a soldier from clerical work to fight, thus speeding the end of the war.

"If I can do this, "she said, "My efforts will be worthwhile."

During the months and years that followed, she saw both her sons return from combat with only minor wounds and heavily decorated.

She was assigned to several bases throughout the United States and in Alaska and the Yukon Territory near the Aleutians. She separated from service briefly and return to her civilian job in Miami in the mid-40s; however, she heeded a recall for women in service and returned to an Army assignment at Fort McPherson near Atlanta.

It was during this assignment that the Air Force became a separate branch of the service and women in the Air Force were authorized. She remained active with the Air Force until 1954 when she separated and went to work with the civil service at the Veterans Regional Headquarters in Montgomery, Ala.

Mrs. Blake, the first woman in the Air Force, died Oct. 17, 1979. In 1987, the Air Force Senior NCO Academy at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., named one of their student dormitories in her honor.

Active Guard Reserve office moves to Buckley

3/4/2013 - BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Officials will realign and relocate some transactional work from the Air Force Reserve Command to the Air Reserve Personnel Center March 4.

The Active Guard Reserve Management Office from AFRC will realign functionally as part of the ARPC's Directorate of Personnel Assignments, with a streamlined assignments business process.

This action is the first of several upcoming realignments in support of the Program Action Directive 07-11 and Air Force's Three-In-One policy.

This new assignments business process consists of two teams - assignment management and assignment processing. This is different from the currently distributed workload which is divided by Air Force specialty code.

The Assignment Management Branch will own AGR application processing, vacancy management, nominations to the hiring authority and notification of applicant selection and non-selection. They will also take all AGR requests including management directed reassignment, also known as MDRs; voluntary and involuntary curtailments; and AGR review board processes.

The Assignment Processing Branch will process all assignments actions associated with new selections, MDRs, curtailments, ARB separation or date of separation extensions, to include systems updates and orders publishing.

AGR colonel assignment and ARB actions will still remain at AFRC.

Until a new venue is established, the AGR management Communities of Practice, or CoP, will remain the one-stop shop for AGR-related processes. Go to to view all information applicable to AGRs throughout the transition.

Through the transition, there will be an overlap on organization boxes accepting AGR applications. Utilize the AGR advertisement to determine which organization box to send your application.

Call the Total Force Service Center at 800-525-0102 for AGR assignment-specific inquiries.

Air National Guard’s first female military training instructor named NCO of the year

by Capt. Peter Shinn
Officer Training School Student Squadron commander

3/4/2013 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- The first and only female military training instructor in the Air National Guard is also the first and only Air National Guard member to be named the Air University Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.

Technical Sgt. Leslie Cummings is an MTI for the Academy of Military Science, the Air Force Officer Training School commissioning program for Air National Guard members.

"It's awesome, and I really appreciate it, but it's really about just doing your job to the best of your ability and maximizing your contribution to the team," Cummings said of winning the award for 2012. "I'm very fortunate to work with such a great group of professionals."

AMS Commander Lt. Col. Reid Rasmussen described Cummings as a "top-notch professional," and said he was not surprised to learn she won award.

"AMS and OTS are fortunate to have people like Leslie," Rasmussen said. "I'm constantly amazed at not only her job performance but everything she's done for Maxwell, as well."

Cummings' contributions to the Maxwell-Gunter community include founding Airmen Against Drunk Driving, known locally as A2D2, which has virtually eliminated drinking and driving incidents among military personnel here. She also is a founding member of the Guard and Reserve Network, or GARNET, an organization that enhances the skills and civilian employment opportunities of Reserve component members.

The Air National Guard advisor to the commander and president of the Air University praised Cummings as an "outstanding Citizen-Airmen" and a premier example of the total force concept.

"Sergeant Cummings is quite simply one of the Guard's very best leaders," said Col. Edward Vaughan, who is also the founder of GARNET. "Her selection as AU's NCO of the year shows that she's one of the very best leaders across the total force as well."

Cummings, who is currently serving on extended active duty, is a member of the California Air National Guard's 146th Airlift Wing, located at Channel Islands.

The wing's commander, Col. Paul Hargrove, congratulated Cummings on her achievement.

"Every member of the 146th Airlift Wing and I are proud of Leslie's accomplishments," Hargrove said. "We're looking forward to her return to the unit."

Though Cummings is the first Air National Guard MTI and first Guard member to be selected for the award, she said she doesn't see herself as a pioneer.

"I really don't think of myself as a trailblazer," Cummings said. "I've just been given great opportunities that I've tried to maximize as best I could, because I believe every opportunity you're given is an opportunity to set yourself apart in a positive way."

F-35s cleared to resume flight

by Joel Fortner
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

3/4/2013 - WASHNGTON (AFNS) -- F-35 Lightning IIs were cleared for flight Feb. 28 following a temporary suspension after a cracked engine blade was found in a test aircraft earlier in the month.

A .06-inch crack was discovered in a third-stage turbine blade in a test aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Feb. 19. Third-stage blades are located deep inside the engine.

A thorough series of tests on the blade concluded prolonged exposure to high-heat levels and other operational stressors on the engine were contributing factors. Edwards AFB is home of the service's major flight test wing, where aircraft undergo rigorous testing.

"As with any new weapons system, we expect to learn things about the aircraft and the system over time and we are doing just that," said Col. Andrew Toth, the 33rd Fighter Wing commander at Eglin AFB, Fla., where F-35 pilot and maintenance training began in January.

After the crack was found, all F-35 engines were inspected and no additional cracks or signs of similar engine stress were found.

Despite not being able to fly during the recent suspension, teams at Eglin AFB continued training in a state-of-the-art training center.

"Due to the fidelity of the simulators, approximately 50 percent of the core syllabus flights for the F-35 training program are accomplished virtually," Toth said. "Any additional time in the simulator gives pilots an opportunity to practice more emergency procedures and improve their capabilities."

The training center has electronic classrooms for maintainers, actual-size, mock-up cockpits and weapons bays. On the flightline, maintainers continued to hone their skills on the advanced, stealth fighter.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Lt. Gen. Frank Gorenc explained why the F-35, which will be built for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines, and eight allies, is needed.

"Enemy threats are evolving. Their surface-to-air missile technology is evolving," he said. "So that's why fifth-generation technology is such a thing and that's the promise of the F-35."

Gorenc said aircraft like the F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt II are far more vulnerable in "contested environments" because they are not stealth aircraft.

The general also explained the advantage of going to war with coalition partners that train with and fly the same aircraft.

"The ability to deal with coalition partners that operate the same equipment, that will probably adopt the same tactics, techniques, procedures, that will be involved in the same logistics concept," Gorenc said, "That's very important because when you have a coalition partner that is operating the same equipment, there are so many things in the joint fight that become much easier to do than you would expect."

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said July 18, the F-35 is critical to a future defense strategy that depends on agility, flexibility and the ability to stay on the cutting edge of technology.

"We're committed to all three (F-35) variants," Panetta said, "because we think each of the forces will be able to use that kind of weaponry for the future so that we can effectively control the skies as we confront the enemies of tomorrow."

Team Fairchild enhances resiliency eight hours at a time

by Senior Airman Mary O'Dell
92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

3/4/2013 - FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE-Wash. -- An Air Mobility Command priority-training course is making its way into the lives of Fairchild Airmen.

This eight hour-resiliency class, designed to build self-confidence, personal strength, spiritual growth and an overall appreciation for life, is open to civilian and military personnel on base.

"Building resilience is vital to overcoming the speed bumps and pitfalls life throws your way," said Maj. Eric Cameron, Fairchild's lead master resiliency trainer and bioenvironmental engineering flight commander. "While the impacts of these adversities are handled in different ways, the fundamental principles being taught in this resilience training provide a skill set that will no doubt enhance everyone's resilience."

Topics discussed during the class include the Comprehensive Airman Fitness Model, how to avoid thinking traps, putting issues in perspective, and capitalizing on strengths.

"Modules are taught using personal examples and interactive tools to help hit main points," said Cameron. "Once individuals have a clear understanding of the skills being taught, they are then given the opportunity to reflect inward to identify and share both challenges and positive moments in their life."

Each of the ten master-resiliency trainers here attended a two-week course at Joint-Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. There are also resiliency-trainer assistants who can teach up to four hours of the course.

"This is the best Air Force training I have ever been a part of," said Tech. Sgt. Paula Barkhauer, master resilience trainer. "This training is designed to give our men and women the tools for coping with adversity before an event happens."

AMC's senior leadership established a strategic goal of 20 percent of Airmen receiving eight hours training by the end of 2012. Fairchild exceeded that goal and is on track to meet or exceed again to have 80 percent of the base trained by December 2013.

The First Term Airman Center was the starting venue for Fairchild to get the resilience training off the ground about a year ago. It is also now offered the first and third Tuesday of every month at the education center.

Airman revisits recovery with Lt. Dan

by Airman 1st Class Michelle Vickers
1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

3/4/2013 - HURLBURT FIELD, Fla.-- (AFNS) -- Lt. Dan, as Forrest Gump film actor Gary Sinise is affectionately known, may not actually be a member of the military, but he treats each service member he meets with the deep-seated respect that should be given to a brother-in-arms.

For Hurlburt Field's Tech. Sgt. Christofer Curtis, a CV-22 flight engineer of 8th Special Operations Squadron, Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band's February visit was more than a good time to at a concert. It was a full circle moment in Curtis' journey towards recovery after suffering injuries, including 17 broken bones, in an aircraft crash in Afghanistan during a 2010 deployment.

"We met in the hospital when he had been injured and we ran into each other again when I did another visit three or four months later," Sinise said in describing meeting Curtis at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. "Now he's here [at Hurlburt] and we're really happy he's back."

With a daunting recovery ahead of him and the need to relearn how to walk, Curtis latched onto any support he could receive.

"I was in for the long haul, not just being reconstructed physically but also mentally," Curtis said. "I believe the first time [Sinise] was there I was still waiting to bury my aircraft commander and there were a lot of emotions at the time. I can remember back then I was just a mess, but the thing that really kept [me together] was the support from Air Force Special Operations Command, my family of course, my close friends and folks like Gary Sinise."

While a short visit to the hospital room of a wounded warrior may seem like a minor contribution in comparison to the sacrifice of an Airman injured in combat, for Curtis, the visits reminded him that his sacrifice was honored.

"[Sinise] truly cares for those that defend this nation, and continues to do so," Curtis said. "It's one thing to talk about support but to act and do something continually is the true mark of a patriot. That constant time and presence he volunteers to our service members and their families is amazing."

Though Sinise began his work with veterans years before his role as Lt. Dan, once he portrayed an amputee veteran he began to gain insight into the struggles of wounded warriors.

"Then I started interacting with people like [the character] Lt. Dan and Chris, and getting to know people who have been hurt and are trying to come back," Sinise said. "The spirit of someone like Chris, people who just come back from injuries, they're all over the place. You probably go through those days like Lt. Dan did in the movie where he's really dark for a while and just can't get his mind right. Then things happen that put them all in perspective and get you going."

After coming to the hospital to start the long road to recovery, Curtis found himself experiencing many of the same emotions that Lt. Dan worked through in Forrest Gump.

"Now I didn't lose my legs and get out of the military, but I certainly could have chosen to get out and learning how to walk again was no picnic," Curtis said. "My destiny was to be 6 feet tall and an AFSOC-sharpened weapon or 6 feet under with my fallen crew members. I felt as if I had been stuck in the middle and it took me a long time to finally figure out that there's always something to live for and never give up on a purpose to live."

Bolstering the morale of service members, whether they are deployed overseas or recovering after being wounded in combat, is a key goal of Sinise's Lt. Dan Band. For Sinise, honoring the troops is a natural place to direct his attention and talents.

"I just have a lot of respect for people that decide to do this, to take this course with their life, public service," Sinise said. "What would we do as a country if we had nobody who wanted to raise their hand and join our service? Well, then we'd have to have a mandatory service so we're grateful for those who choose this."

Curtis's recovery experience altered his outlook on such service and on those who serve alongside him. With the needed support and encouragement, wounded warriors such as Curtis are able to return to duty.

"I look at those who served completely different," Curtis said. "It's no longer something that's just a word to me. I always remember that today is probably someone's day one being a wounded veteran and the impact that has on their families and friends can be frightening. I told myself that if there is any chance that I could continue to serve I would do so. As with many other wounded warriors, I had quite a bit of fight left in me. So I used that sense of continued duty and focused it on a new mission at the time, to get better. Now with that objective cleared, it's back to flying."

Curtis is currently working to regain his flight qualification status so he can return to flying special operations missions.

Air Force, Army battle it out on the paintball field

by Airman 1st Class Naomi M. Griego
1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

3/1/2013 - HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- --Members of the 7th Special Forces Group and Team Hurlburt joined together
for an afternoon of free paintball at the paintball field on Hurlburt Field,
Fla., 1 Mar.

"I coordinate these functions because everyone works very hard and it's nice
to take a step back from the high ops tempo and just have fun," said Robert
Scott, 1st Special Operations Force Support Squadron Landing Zone manager.

Scott, a former member of the United States Army reached out to our brothers
in arms at the 7th SFG and invited them to Hurlburt Field to enjoy an
afternoon of free paintball along with Airmen from Hurlburt Field.

Scott coordinates various events with different organizations on base to encourage
camaraderie among Airmen of all ranks. His goal is simple; he just wants
everyone to enjoy themselves.

"It's pretty cool to be out here, I had fun," said Sgt. Cecily Aguas, 7th
SFG, supply logistics troop. Aguas participated in the paintball-filled
afternoon as one of the only two women amongst close to fifty men.

'To honor our fallen heroes, step by step'

by Senior Airman Joe McFadden
1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

2/4/2013 - HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- In the same park that enshrines the memory of the first Air Commandos, sixteen Hurlburt Airmen set foot on a 450-mile march to honor their fallen brothers during a kickoff ceremony at the Hurlburt Airpark Feb. 3.

The second annual Air Commando Ruck March and Climb encompasses a nearly one million-step trek from Hurlburt Field, home of the Air Force Special Operations Command, to MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., the home of U.S. Special Operations Command.

In addition, two more Hurlburt Airmen will simultaneously ascent Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, as part of the dual effort to pay tribute to the sacrifice of deceased Airmen.

"We're motivated by the memory of our brothers," said Maj. Tom Leyden, 34th Special Operations Squadron and ruck march participant. "When I think about their sacrifice, how they loved this country, their families and their friends - they truly lived 'service before self.' And when we get down there for the memorial, we'll remember their sacrifice, knowing that our country is a better place because of their service."

Tech. Sgt. Deon McGowan, 1st Special Operations Wing and lead coordinator of the march, said the project originally began in 2011 after 31 American service members, including three Airmen from the 24th Special Tactics Squadron, lost their lives in an Aug. 6 Chinook helicopter crash.

Yet after completing the march, McGowan said the losses of Capt. Ryan Hall, 319th Special Operations Squadron, Capt. Ryan Whitlock, 34th Special Operations Squadron, 1st Lt. Justin Wilkens, 34th SOS, and Senior Airman Julian Scholten, 25th Intelligence Squadron, in a Feb. 18, 2012 U-28A crash in Djibouti, Africa, as well as the Feb. 25, 2012 death of Lt. Col. John Loftis, 866th Air Expeditionary Squadron, in Kabul, Afghanistan, demanded his team commit to a second march.

"This is the reason why we're out here today," McGowan said. "These Air Commandos are dedicating their time, their bodies and their feet to this event to honor those five Air Commandos."

McGowan reaffirmed his fellow ruckers' commitment to respecting the fallen as he described the challenges his team would encounter.

"For the rest of our journey, it's going to be tough," he said. "But we have a motto 'Honoring our fallen heroes, step-by-step.' And when you walk through the gate [at MacDill Air Force Base] and the big memorial comes up, you'll see it's an overhead shot of a spade, the symbol for USSOCOM. And as you enter that and see the black marble with the names on the walls, you can take your hand over the names on the wall of those who have fallen and made the ultimate sacrifice-- I will tell you, it's quite moving. That's what's going to get you through this march."

Among the dozens of well-wishers at the Airpark included Loftis' widow, Holly, who thanked the team for their tribute to her husband's memory.

"It means a lot that they would do this and walk to remember them-- it's very meaningful to us as families," she said. "But my hope is that everyone will remember they gave their lives for our freedoms and not to take that for granted."