Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek Fort Story to dedicate Heroes Circle to those lost after 9/11
By COURTNEY MABEUS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: September 11, 2018
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Cmdr. Peter G. Oswald, commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare Unit 4, played football for the U.S. Naval Academy. But being a SEAL was nothing compared to raising three daughters, according to a childhood friend.
Robert Maestas said his son, Petty Officer 2nd Class Mario Maestas, a Navy SEAL, promised to be home in time to celebrate his 45th birthday with him in Colorado, where they spent weekends camping, fly fishing and hiking.
Lt. Kylan A. Jones-Huffman wrote haikus aboard naval vessels and spoke multiple languages. He planned to get his doctorate in Turkish studies before his reserve unit was called up to Iraq.
Oswald died Aug. 22, 2002. He fell while fast-roping from a hovering Blackhawk helicopter during a training exercise in El Salvador. Maestas was shot and killed during a live-ammunition exercise at Fort Chaffee, Ark., July 3, 2003. A month later, Jones-Huffman was killed when his SUV came under attack in Hillah, Iraq, according to his online obituary.
They are among the first of 83 servicemembers – 82 men and one woman – associated with Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story who have died in combat, training or in other service-related incidents since the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Each will be honored with a plaque, placed 8 feet apart, along the new Heroes Circle, a 0.8-mile trail to be dedicated today during a ceremony at the base.
Eighty-three stories. Eighty-three sacrifices.
An opportunity to honor, reflect and remember each one.
“I want you to reflect on the sacrifice that these individuals gave,” expeditionary base commanding officer Capt. Joey Frantzen said. “That’s why we can enjoy all these freedoms.”
The trail, formerly known as the Circle H Nature Trail, runs through a hardwood forest and marsh on base. It is now “filled with warriors,” joint base Command Master Chief Jeffrey Covington said.
During a recent walk, a man wearing white ear buds nodded at others as he moved from plaque to plaque as a sole runner passed through. Covington and Frantzen pointed out some of the names.
“Each one has such an interesting story of sacrifice and that’s the ultimate thing here,” Covington said. “So when we walk through – and I walk through with anybody – there’s a lot of emotion involved but also at the same time ... this is our heritage in here. These are our ... our warriors in here. They will forever be right here, and for us, we need to carry that torch on and keep it going.”
There’s Lt. Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor after he died in a firefight with the Taliban on an Afghan mountaintop as he radioed for help. His name appears in a cluster of others from the expeditionary base killed that day – June 28, 2005 – including SEALs Danny Dietz and Matt Axelson, both of whom were posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the military’s second-highest decoration.
As he stood next to the plaque marking Cmdr. Philip Murphy-Sweet, Covington remembered being “a couple blocks away” from the roadside bomb blast that killed the Navy reservist in Baghdad on April 7, 2007. Murphy-Sweet was supposed to have gone home two weeks earlier, Covington said.
“He stayed because he believed in the mission,” Covington said. “He had a family at home. Kids were waiting on him. Very hard. That was a tough one on a lot of people over there.”
A little farther down the path, there’s a marker for Navy Lt. Florence Choe. According to the Los Angeles Times, Choe visited with a Navy recruiter just days after Sept. 11, 2001 and, years later, while working at Naval Medical Center San Diego, volunteered to go to Afghanistan on a temporary duty assignment.
“She is the bright sun on our dark days and the angel that gives us hope and love,” Choe’s brother, Ruffy Bacong Jr. said in the inscription on her plaque.
Across the trail is the marker honoring Navy Lt. j. g. Francis “Frankie” Toner. Choe and Toner were killed March 27, 2009. Toner, Choe and two other officers were out for a run on the perimeter of Camp Shaheen, near Mazar-i-Sharif, when a man who infiltrated the Afghan National Army began firing on them. Toner, who was unarmed, pursued the attacker and was shot. He was later awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest decoration for valor in combat, for attempting to distract the attacker.
“That’s pretty significant for a lieutenant junior grade,” Covington said.
The 83rd plaque along the trail is for Army Lt. Col. John Penree, who died in his home on Fort Story in March. The second-in-command for the joint base, Penree was set to retire in November after 43 years of service.
The Heroes Circle took about a year to construct, and there are plans to add benches and more upgrades in the future. Navy officials acknowledge that more names may be added as new information becomes available, including from families, and as conflict continues.
“Hopefully these are the last names,” Frantzen said. “That’s what we’d like.”
Covington said he’s found himself getting caught on the trail; five minutes has turned into an hour and a half as he read the names of those lost.
“It worried me that I knew too many,” he said.