Eglin Air Force Base remembers airmen lost in Khobar Towers bombing
By JIM THOMPSON | The Northwest Florida Daily News | Published: June 26, 2020
EGLIN AFB (Tribune News Service) — The moving trumpet notes of "Taps" cut mournfully into the thickly humid morning air at Eglin Air Force Base on Thursday as the 33rd Fighter Wing remembered the dozen airmen the wing lost in the June 25, 1996, terrorist attack at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
On that day 24 years ago, just two days before the 33rd Fighter Wing was scheduled to return home from Saudi Arabia, a truck bomb exploded at Khobar Towers. The blast damaged buildings across the complex, then home to a large number of American military personnel.
A monument to the fallen, on the grounds of Eglin AFB, serves as the site each year for a remembrance of the 33rd Fighter Wing "Nomads" lost in the truck bomb explosion.
For Col. Jon Wheeler, the proximity of this year's anniversary to Father's Day was particularly poignant.
Addressing the families of the fallen soldiers and others attending this year's memorial, Wheeler noted that in 1996, before the proliferation of digital technology, military personnel on deployment truly were separated from their families for holidays like Father's Day, making the return to home all that much more special.
"They weren't able to FaceTime or Skype," Wheeler said. "They weren't able to talk or text every day with their families."
And, Wheeler continued, he was also mindful Thursday of the fathers of the fallen Nomads. Those men, he said, have now "spent 24 years not getting that call, not getting that card, not getting that visit" from their sons on Father's Day.
Wheeler also touched on the challenges facing the world today, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the demonstrations around the country regarding issues of race, policing and history.
"This year, our country and the world have endured much suffering," Wheeler said. "It's a lot to take in, and the challenges can seem insurmountable."
It can be helpful, Wheeler continued, to look to the past for inspiration in handling current difficulties. "As we face new challenges today," he said, "we are inspired by our Nomads from years ago."
Then, addressing the fallen airmen, Wheeler said, "Now, more than ever, your legacy inspires and touches us."
The focal point of the monument is a semicircular stone structure featuring photos of the 12 airmen, and inscriptions honoring them, all under an engraving that reads, "Our Nomads Have Ceased Their Wandering."
For the annual ceremony, boots decorated with yellow flowers and tied with yellow ribbons — a symbol of loved ones awaiting a military member's return — are arrayed below the stone memorials to the fallen airmen.
In addition to the 12 airmen from the 33rd Fighter Wing and the seven other airmen lost at Khobar Towers, the truck bomb blast wounded 105 Nomads. All told, the bombing resulted in nearly 500 casualties among American military and civilian personnel.
When the truck bomb exploded just before 10 p.m., it unleashed the equivalent of more than 20,000 pounds of TNT. At the time, Khobar Towers housed about 3,000 Air Force personnel and several hundred U.S. Army troops. British and French forces also lived in other buildings in the complex.
In other remarks Thursday, Wheeler said it was one of the high honors of his position as wing commander to preside over the annual memorial observance.
"Thank you for your continued trust in the 33rd Fighter Wing to remember those we lost," he told the Thursday audience for the memorial.
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Combat boots and yellow flowers are shown to honor those that lost their lives during the 24th Khobar Towers Memorial Ceremony at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, June 25, 2020. Every year, friends, families and former Nomads unite to pay tribute to those who were killed during the terrorist attack at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
HEATHER LEVEILLE/U.S. AIR FORCE