RAF MILDENHALL, England — Outside Hangar 814, a cold wind howled and a low, gray sky lingered like a funeral shroud over RAF Mildenhall.
Inside the massive hangar, hymns were sung, prayers were said and tears were shed as more than 3,000 people gathered to honor nine airmen from the base who died last week in a plane crash in the mountains of Albania.
“They knew what risks they were facing. They accepted those risks,” said Col. Dennis Jones, commander of the 352nd Special Operations Group, the home unit for eight of the airmen.
The men died late Thursday during a training exercise with the Albanian military. Their -130H Combat Talon II struck a mountain near Tirana, the capital city.
The nine men honored at the service were: Capt. Todd R. Bracy, 34, Murphysboro, Ill.; Capt. James S. Cronin, 32, Elk Grove Village, Ill.; Capt. Gil C. Williamson, 31, Dike, Texas; Capt. Surender D. Kothakota, 30, Tulsa, Okla.; 1st Lt. Ray C. Owens Jr., 32, Birmingham, Ala.; Chief Master Sgt. Lawrence B. Gray, 40, Chester, S.C.; Tech. Sgt. James R. Henry, 30, Valparaiso, Fla.; Tech. Sgt. Glenn P. Lastes, 39, Southington, Conn.; and Staff Sgt. Patrick R. Pentico, 32, Hanksville, Utah.
All but Lastes were members of the 7th Special Operations Squadron. Lastes was with Detachment 2, 25th Information Operations Squadron, also at RAF Mildenhall.
Lt. Col. Patrick Dean, commander of the 7th SOS, spoke of the men and said many people had asked him how he would carry on after such a tragedy.
“My way ahead is clear,” he said. “I draw my strength from the men we honor today. I can clearly hear each one of them saying to me, ‘Sir, stand tall. Drive on. Take care of our families.’”
“I am proud of you and proud to have served with you.”
Capt. Tamara Prasse, commander of the 25th IOS, said the deaths make her realize we never seem to have time to get to know the people around us.
“Somehow, there’s always something else to do,” she said.
But she called it a privilege to have served with the men who were honored in the ceremony that lasted a bit more than one hour.
Among the dignitaries attending were Gen. Robert H. Foglesong, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, and U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Thomas Csrnko, commander of the Special Operations Command Europe.
Elsewhere on the base, the men are being remembered with a 24-hour vigil at Remembrance Park that will continue through the end of the week.
Nine flags have been erected at the park and people have dropped flowers, photos and even a six-pack of beer at the foot of the flags to honor the lost airmen.
After the ceremony, Jones said all of the bodies have not yet been recovered. However, he said, nearly all of the 115 troops from RAF Mildenhall who were deployed for the exercise in Albania have returned home. The exercise was canceled in the wake of the crash.
As the ceremony ended, the giant hangar doors were opened to reveal an aircraft like the one that crashed. Above it, the sky had broken.
Sunshine was falling on RAF Mildenhall.