Airmen, Soldiers honored on 15th anniversary of 203rd RED HORSE crash

Family members, friends and Airmen assigned to the Virginia Air National Guard’s Virginia Beach-based 203rd RED HORSE Squadron conduct a memorial service March 3, 2016, at Camp Pendleton to honor and remember 18 unit members and three Florida Army Guard aviators killed 15 years ago.  (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

Family members, friends and Airmen assigned to the Virginia Air National Guard’s Virginia Beach-based 203rd RED HORSE Squadron conduct a memorial service March 3, 2016, at Camp Pendleton to honor and remember 18 unit members and three Florida Army Guard aviators killed 15 years ago. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

CAMP PENDLETON, Va. — Airmen of the Virginia Air National Guard’s 203rd RED HORSE Squadron, 192nd Fighter Wing welcomed family members, friends and fellow servicemembers to Camp Pendleton, Virginia, March 3, 2016, for a ceremony commemorating the 15th anniversary of the worst peacetime aviation disaster in National Guard history. Eighteen members of the 203rd were killed alongside three aviators from the Florida Army National Guard’s Detachment 1, 171st Aviation Battalion when the C-23 Sherpa they were flying in crashed in a cotton field near Unadilla, Georgia, March 3, 2001.

Brig. Gen. Paul F. Griffin, Virginia National Guard Director of the Joint Staff, joined Col. Marshall L. Kjelvik, Director of Staff, Virginia Air National Guard, Col. Robert Grey, 192nd Fighter Wing commander, and Col. Toni M. Lord, 192nd Fighter Wing Mission Support Group commander, in remembering the fallen Airmen.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since that tragic day when we lost 18 fellow Airmen and three Army Guard brothers in Unadilla, Georgia,” said Lt. Col. Stock Dinsmore, commander of the 203rd RED HORSE Squadron. “But others lost husbands, sons, fathers, brothers and we will never forget the sacrifices of those individuals, those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

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

“It seems like it happened yesterday,” said Laverne Johnson, of Emporia, who lost her husband, Tech. Sgt. Randy Johnson, in the crash. Johnson traveled to Virginia Beach for the ceremony with her daughter LaDeja, who was 9 months old when her father died.

“I feel like he helped a lot of people while he was on Earth,” LaDeja Johnson, who was wearing one of her father’s dog tags, said. “I’m very proud of him. It’s good to know he left a footprint here that no one will ever forget.”

Both agreed that, although it was difficult, it was ultimately good to be at the ceremony.

“It’s good to be here,” LaDeja Johnson said. “I love seeing the other people.

“The best thing is seeing the other family members,” agreed Laverne Johnson said. “We have a fellowship. That will never be broken.”

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.

“As the unit prepares for its fourth mobilization since that day, it’s a stark reminder that the commitment and service of our servicemembers and their families are still required for the freedoms that we enjoy in this great nation,” Dinsmore said. “While we as a unit continue our service we will always strive to build upon the legacy of those fallen Airmen and we will never forget that we are here to honor their sacrifice and commitment to us. We will always go forth in their name and continue to serve this great nation.”

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.