by Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Rojek
Defense Media Activity
5/4/2012 - FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. -- Walking almost 90 miles, 36 Airmen completed the Air Advisor Memorial Ruck March from New York City to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., April 26-27.
The march, which started at One World Trade Center and ended at the Air Advisor Academy, was in remembrance of the deaths of nine U.S. air advisors in Afghanistan.
On the morning of April 27, 2011, an Afghan Air Force lieutenant colonel walked into the Afghan Air Command and Control Center at the Kabul Air Command Headquarters and, without warning or provocation, opened fire, killing eight active-duty U.S. Airmen and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. Those nine service members came from various bases and specialties, but were working together for a common mission: advising the Afghan military.
"It was a unique situation," said Lt. Col. J.D. Scott II, the march coordinator and chief of core knowledge at the Air Advisor Academy. "It didn't happen for a particular base. It didn't happen for a particular squadron or base or even for a particular (Air Force Specialty Code).
"Because of that, remembering their sacrifice may not have been captured as a whole," Scott continued. "The individual would have been honored at their base, but the mission of the entire of the team would not have been recognized."
Since all of the nine went through the Air Advisor Academy, Col. John Holm, the academy's commandant, decided that would be the place to honor their sacrifice as a team, Scott said. Holm made plans to create a physical memorial, but a plethora of obstacles made it impossible to complete the memorial by the one year anniversary of the tragic event. One of the obstacles was funding.
Holm and his team came up with idea of a ruck march to both honor the fallen air advisors and act as a fundraiser to help build the physical memorial. Scott was put in charge of organizing the march and, in just two weeks, succeeded in gathering people from Dover AFB, Del., to Eielson AFB, Alaska, for the march. Each marcher knew at least one of the nine fallen air advisors in some way.
"Master Sgt. Tara Brown and Maj. Phil Ambard both lived three and four doors down from me in the dorms," said Tech. Sgt. Brian Christiansen, a photographer with the 145th Airlift Wing in Charlotte, N.C., who was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan at the same time as the air advisors. "Both were incredibly friendly people. And I met several of them (the morning of the shooting) as I walked into my building and opened the door and they walked out."
Those personal connections to the fallen service members and their families drew the 36 marchers together, Scott said.
"They were coming in from all over," he said. "That's kind of representative of the nine that we lost. They came from all over the Air Force to serve a single mission as an air advisor. So the marchers that were honoring them came from all over the Air Force to remember them."
Each paid their own way to New York City to honor their fallen friends and show their families that they haven't forgotten their loved one's sacrifice. The event also drew in another 14 volunteers to help with everything from transportation to food to health and care coverage.
The marchers were broken up into four teams, each set to march three legs of 7.3 miles. During their leg, each marcher carried a ruck sack with a paver stone inside, each stone engraved with the name of a fallen air advisor and to be laid at the memorial on JB MDL.
Holm and his nine-person team kicked off the march at 9:11 a.m. April 26. However, rather than just start off near ground zero, the colonel wanted to do something more for his fallen comrades.
"We wanted to honor them by doing something significant, and to me starting at the top of the World Trade Center was it," Holm said. "We had those ruck sacks on the entire tour. It was all symbolic and important to us in our own personal, different ways. For me, it was probably the biggest single gesture we could do short of opening up (the academy's) memorial ourselves."
The significance of the march touched a lot of people along the way, starting with the One World Trade Center steel workers, who gave the Airmen a standing ovation as they marched through the structure. Other people along their route also showed their appreciation by stopping to give hugs, encouragement, thanks and even money toward the memorial.
As they traveled by foot from New York to New Jersey, state and local police departments provided escort, each district calling the next to inform them of what the Airmen were doing, Holm said. The marchers were even given a chance to rest and eat at the fire departments in both Elizabeth, N.J., and Jersey City, N.J. It was a sign of support of both the Airmen marching and the fallen air advisors, he said.
When the fourth team finished their last leg, the marchers were 1.1 miles from the construction site of the Air Advisor Memorial on JB MDL. All 36 marchers gathered together in formation and made their way through the base gate. What met them there was surprise to all.
"Security forces closed down the road and gave us police escort in," Scott said. "There were numerous amounts of people from the front gate to the memorial lining the street on both sides, just cheering us on in.
"The fact that the base community just embraces us and cheered us in on those final steps, it's very inspiring," he added.
It was an emotional moment for Christiansen as well. He was present at the base when the air advisors were killed and attended their dignified transfer ceremony. However, each person was laid to rest in different locations around the U.S., so he never got to have closure.
Christiansen said the real impact came when he saw the road signs leading to the installation. "That's when it really started to hit in not that we're all going to do this, but this is for real. We've done this for the families, we've done this for our fallen brothers and sister. It was pretty easy to get caught up in the emotion there.
"The ceremony of laying the bricks down was really powerful," he added. "It brought some serious closure."
For Chaplain Maj. Eric Boyer, who said the opening prayer for the stone laying ceremony, it was a bittersweet chance to pay tribute to two of the officers that he had a connection to.
"It makes me proud to know that their sacrifice will be honored and will be remembered," he said. "Every Air Advisor who comes through the academy here is going to recognize the price that has been paid by their predecessors."
Prior to entering military service, Boyer knew Lt. Col. Frank Bryant from their hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., where he served as Bryant's wrestling coach.
Boyer also served as squadron chaplain for Maj. Jeffery Ausborn while at Joint Base San Antonio in 2011, but had already changed duty station's to JB MDL when he got the word about Ausborn's death. His biggest regret was not being able to preside over his funeral service.
"It meant a lot to me to be able to say something to honor his memory here, since I wasn't able to speak at his memorial ceremony back at his home station," he said.
While the ruck march and stone-laying ceremony brought some closure for Christiansen and others, the construction of the memorial itself is still ongoing. However, between the pledges for the marchers, donations received during the march as well as T-shirt and brick sales, Holm estimated that the team has raised almost $10,000 toward the memorial just through this one event.
"We have that feeling that we did the right thing just by honoring our comrades, regardless of what money we raised," Holm said. "That was a tremendous feeling."
The Air Advisor Memorial is scheduled to be unveiled July 27. For more information on the memorial, visit www.airadvisormemorial.org