Va. Guard remembers Airmen, Soldiers on 14th anniversary of 203rd RHS crash

The Virginia Air National Guard’s Virginia Beach-based 203rd RED HORSE Squadron holds a memorial service March 3, 2015, at Camp Pendleton to honor 18 unit members and three Florida Army Guard aviators killed 14 years ago. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

The Virginia Air National Guard’s Virginia Beach-based 203rd RED HORSE Squadron holds a memorial service March 3, 2015, at Camp Pendleton to honor 18 unit members and three Florida Army Guard aviators killed 14 years ago. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

CAMP PENDLETON, Va. — The Virginia Air National Guard’s 203rd RED HORSE Squadron conducted a ceremony March 3, 2015, at Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach to remember the 21 Airmen and Soldiers killed in the worst peacetime aviation disaster in the history of the National Guard. The 203rd lost 18 Airmen March 3, 2001, when the C-23 Sherpa they were flying in crashed in a cotton field near Unadilla, Ga. In addition to the Air Guard engineers, three aviators from the Florida Army National Guard’s Detachment 1, 171st Aviation Battalion, were killed in the crash.

Brig. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, Brig. Gen. Wayne A. Wright, the chief of staff of the Virginia Air National Guard, and Col. Robert J. Grey, commander of the 192nd Fighter Wing, joined with family members, friends and current Airmen and Soldiers of the Virginia National Guard to pay tribute to and remember the Airmen and Soldiers who died 14 years earlier.

“We’re here to honor and remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and what is means to be citizen Airmen and Soldiers,” said Lt. Col. Stock Dinsmore, commander of the 203rd RHS. “As we continue our service today, we strive to build on the legacy of these Airmen and never forget the sacrifices of those who went before us.”

Dinsmore, who was in the unit when the incident occurred, thanked those in attendance for coming and for continuing to remember those who perished.

“It means a lot to me, as someone who was here and knew these Airmen personally,” he said.

The 203rd members were returning home after completing a two-week military construction project at Hurlburt Field, Fla. It was the worst loss of life in the Virginia National Guard since World War II.

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.

Bonnie Self lost her husband, Senior Master Sgt. James Beninati, in the crash.

“It’s always good to get with the other folks who lost their loved ones and remember them,” she said. “Their story still needs to be told and we still need to remember these men who gave their all.”

“It seems like just yesterday,” said Al Dirosa, whose brother in law, Master Sgt. Dean Shelby, was killed in the crash. “It’s hard to believe it’s been 14 years.”

Dirosa noted that the only memorial ceremony he has missed was because he was deployed.

“This is a tight knit group, and we all look out for each other,” he explained. “We always have to be here to remember them.”

Dirosa, who served alongside Shelby in the unit and continues to serve in the 203rd, helped construct the memorial built in honor of the fallen Airmen.

The 203rd RHS memorial for those killed in the crash 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.

203rd RED HORSE Airmen lost in the crash:
• Senior Master Sgt. James Beninati of Virginia Beach, Va.
• Tech. Sgt. Paul Blancato of Norfolk, Va.
• Master Sgt. Ernest Blawas of Virginia Beach, Va.
• Tech. Sgt. Andrew H. Bridges of Chesapeake, Va.
• Senior Master Sgt. Eric Bulman of Virginia Beach, Va.
• Tech. Sgt. Paul Cramer of Norfolk, Va.
• Master Sgt. Michael East of Parksley, Va.
• Tech. Sgt. Ronald Elkin of Norfolk, Va.
• Tech. Sgt. James Ferguson of Newport News, Va.
• Tech. Sgt. Randy Johnson of Emporia, Va.
• Staff Sgt. Mathrew Kidd of Hampton, Va.
• Senior Master Sgt. Michael Lane of Moyock, Va.
• Master Sgt. Edwin Richardson of Virginia Beach, Va.
• Master Sgt. Dean Shelby of Virginia Beach, Va.
• Tech. Sgt. John Sincavage of Chesapeake, Va.
• Tech. Sgt. Gregory Skurupey of Gloucester, Va.
• Tech. Sgt Richard Summerell of Franklin, Va.
• Maj. Frederick Watkins of Virginia Beach, Va.

Florida Army Guard Soldiers lost in the crash:
• Chief Warrant Officer 4 Johnny W. Duce of Orange Park, Fla.
• Chief Warrant Officer 2 Eric P. Larson of Land-O-Lakes, Fla.
• Staff Sgt. Robert F. Ward Jr. of Lakeland, Fla.


Photos: Memorial Service Honors Airmen from 203rd RHS killed in 2001