Black Hawk unit pays tribute to aviators
GIEBELSTADT, Germany — Steadied by her daughter on one side and her husband on the other, Orelia Gonzalez clasped the spray of roses tightly to her breast.
Silently she wiped away tears as officers from her fallen son’s unit shared memories of the men they knew with the families that loved them best.
Sixteen months after a sandstorm engulfed a UH-60 Black Hawk flying a training mission and slammed it into the Kuwaiti desert floor, members of the 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment gathered Friday to dedicate a monument in memory of the two pilots and two crew chiefs who died that night.
“We are paying tribute to your loved ones, and our loved ones,” said Col. Raymond Palumbo, commander of the 12th Aviation Brigade, the battalion’s Giebelstadt-based parent unit. “The American soldier holds a very special place in American society. They sometimes pay the ultimate sacrifice, but we must understand that the sacrifice is not futile.”
The unit remembered Chief Warrant Officer 2 Tim Moehling, 36, described by battalion commander Lt. Col. Eldon “Pete” Franks as a “gifted pilot” who loved nothing better when he wasn’t flying than to pile his wife, Lisa, and three children into their minivan and drive all over Europe.
They remembered Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Daren Smith, 32, quiet and instantly likeable, who spoke fluent Italian, adored his wife and two daughters, and spent his spare time rock-climbing.
They remembered Sgt. Will Tracy, 27, a gung-ho former Marine with a passion for travel who volunteered for every mission he could and who, Franks said, “had seen more of Europe than any two other people in the battalion.”
And they remembered Sgt. Rodrigo Gonzalez-Garza, 26, a talkative jokester whose fierce loyalty to Moehling put him on that fatal flight Feb. 25, 2003.
The entire battalion stood stiffly as a strong wind whipped the nearby flags hanging at half-staff.
Franks presented the monument, a stern-faced black eagle representing the United States, perched atop a globe and clutching the battalion crest in its talons. The pedestal was carved in Italian marble and placed in a diamond-shaped square of sand, representing the Kuwaiti desert.
It sits next to the base’s flagpole, and to a monument to 26 soldiers killed in 1994 when an Air Force fighter jet inadvertently shot down two 12th Aviation helicopters over northern Iraq.
Members of the unit organized an independent foundation to pay the $15,000 cost of the monument. Donations from the sculptor, Paul Moore; the Huffman Engraving Co.; and the Crucible Foundry, all in Norman, Okla., cut the bill, Franks said. Soldier contributions and a successful car wash last month in Würzburg covered the rest of the cost.
The unit paid special tribute to the four family members who had flown from the United States this week for the ceremony. They included Gonzalez-Garza’s parents, Ramiro and Orelia; his sister, Veronica Valadez; and Smith’s father, Ron Smith.
Smith, an American Airlines pilot instructor, said he introduced his son “J.D.” to piloting in one of his airline’s simulators eight years ago. The young man was fascinated and earned his private pilot’s license before joining the Army to fly Black Hawk helicopters.
Sad as he is over his loss, Smith said he has no regrets about turning his son on to flying.
“Aviation is not inherently dangerous but, to a greater degree than the sea, it is not forgiving of carelessness or mistakes,” he said. “If you’re in this business for any appreciable time, you’re going to face this reality.”
Valadez said her family drew strength from meeting her brother’s buddies.
“It’s so hard,” she said. “But to be around the people he actually knew, who he served with — it’s an honor to be here with the guys.”