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Common thread: Air Force family unites through tragedy

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Randy Phelps
  • Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs
April 5 was both one of the saddest and proudest days of my life. As a new member of Air Force Special Operations Command, one of my first duties was to travel to Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, to help support the 352nd Special Operations Group after one of its MC-130H Combat Talon IIs crashed in Albania during a joint/combined training exercise March 31. Nine of our fellow Airmen lost their lives.

I didn’t know them, but yet, I did.

They were like you and me, serving our country with a belief that we’re making a difference at home and around the world. In uniform, there is no difference between these nine Airmen and the thousands of other men and women who have given their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Panama or any other place American military members have gone to defend the interests of the United States.

There is a big difference between people who wear the uniform and those who don’t. Policemen understand. So do firemen. We serve to protect others, and it helps forge a bond many people will never understand. I have felt it many times over the past 23 years, but never as strong as this day.

The base held a candlelight vigil. I would estimate several hundred men, women and children were there. Families of some of the lost Airmen stood alongside fellow squadron members and others from different units around the base.

It was a somber ceremony, and I couldn’t hold back the tears as I watched people I’d never met grieve for their loved ones.

I wasn’t alone.

My brothers and sisters, fellow Airmen and Department of Defense employees, were all around me. They were feeling the same pain, grieving for the families and coworkers. I realized again, that I belong to a family larger than I can imagine. And I’m truly blessed.

I have a lovely wife and children. I’m also a proud grandfather. But, I have got thousands of brothers and sisters who understand the commitment, the sacrifice and the ultimate price some of us pay in our efforts to keep the world a little safer for our children.

It makes me proud of each and every one of us. I am proud of the families that continue to support us when we’re called away for extended periods, to lands far away, in the defense of freedom.

But mostly, I am proud of my extended family in uniform. You leave the farms, cities and suburbs with a higher calling to serve. You sign up to defend your country, knowing that the job is inherently dangerous and could possibly claim the ultimate sacrifice. You do it despite the lower pay and multiple moves, uprooting your family every few years to start anew.

Yet, there you are, standing next to me in good times and bad. I know I can count on you, and you know you can count on me. That is the difference.