Widow accepts degree for fallen soldier in Würzburg ceremony
Stars and Stripes September 11, 2005
WüRZBURG, Germany — Athena Ayala smiled through tears as she celebrated for her late husband the achievement of the one goal that eluded him in life.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 David Ayala, 24, of Troop F, 159th Aviation Regiment — best known by its nickname, “Big Windy” — stood 30 credits shy of earning his Bachelor of Science degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University when the CH-47 Chinook helicopter he piloted crashed in a fierce sandstorm April 6 in Afghanistan. He died, along with 17 other crew and passengers.
“He’s accomplished every one of his dreams, although his time was short,” Athena Ayala said as she accepted his diploma Friday from Thomas Sieland, the university’s dean of academics.
“I know that David’s spirit is here, smiling.”
Jerry Deese, director of the Embry-Riddle center at Big Windy’s home base in Giebelstadt, had known Ayala since the young pilot signed up for classes in 2003. He organized the graduation ceremony at Würzburg Army Hospital, where Athena had worked the past year as a maternity ward nurse.
“[David] was an awesome student. He was always on the dean’s list,” Deese said tearfully. “And he was fun to be around.”
Family and friends gathered in front of a table decorated with a bouquet of red and blue roses along with photos of Ayala: in a Chinook cockpit, in his Army dress uniform, strumming a guitar. In all of them, he smiled.
That grin is what his loved ones remember most about him.
It’s what brought David and Athena together, during their junior year at New Rochelle High School in suburban New York City, when he would crack corny jokes in class to distract her.
“He was kind of a comedian,” she said, smiling at the memory. “He’d sit behind me, and I’d tell him to be quiet because he was disturbing the class.”
His company commander, Maj. Craig Wilhelm, called Ayala a “scholar” of practical jokes. Once, he said, Ayala took Wilhelm’s cap and froze it solid. Wilhelm pretended to be furious, until he looked into Ayala’s eyes.
“I tried to be stern and yell at him, but I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “We both started laughing.”
One of Ayala’s goal was to fly, and he enlisted in the Army as a helicopter crew chief shortly after graduating from high school in 1998. He was picked up for pilot’s school in 2002, the same year he married Athena, who had earned her nursing degree. They moved to Germany a year later.
Wilhelm described Ayala as a good pilot, a “soldier’s soldier” who mentored newcomers.
“He was the guy who always took them under his wing, coaching them along,” he said.
Athena said David also taught himself to paint and play the guitar, composing his own music — even as he worked toward his degree. He wanted to be the first man in his family to graduate.
Now he is.
Athena, who has completed her contract at the hospital, plans to leave Germany this month. She will give David’s diploma to his mother, who couldn’t attend the ceremony.
She said she will remember David always, especially on April 17, the birthday they share.
“He said everything he had to say. He did everything he had to do,” Athena said. “He didn’t waste a moment of his life.”