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Alabama Airman laid to rest

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Ty Foster
  • Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs
Under a blue sky, a four-ship formation of F-16 Vipers loitered above northwestern Alabama. Below, an Air Force combat controller established radio contact with the pilots.
October 7 was a hot fall afternoon on the outskirts of Haleyville, Ala.

Eight days earlier, Senior Airman Mark A. Forester, a combat controller with the 21st Expeditionary Special Tactics Squadron, was operating in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan.

"During this operation, he distinguished himself, as he did throughout the deployment, as a skilled combat controller, a courageous warrior and a selfless teammate," said Lt. Col. Parks Hughes, 21st ESTS commander. "While assaulting an enemy ambush site, Mark performed his professional duties superbly. He covered the team with close-air support, provided suppressive fire with his personal weapon, killed several insurgent fighters and maneuvered his element into position to flank the enemy."

When one of his teammates, Army Sgt. First Class Calvin Harrison, was killed by an enemy sniper, Airman Forester led an element from protective cover into the open to recover their friend. Advancing into enemy machine gun fire, the 29-year-old combat controller's life was cut short by enemy fire.

It was his first deployment, but in the five months since his arrival in May, he'd forged a bond of trust with his teammates on the ground and those he controlled in the skies, as evidenced by the retiring of his call sign.

His best friend, Staff Sgt. Robert Bonello, 21st ESTS combat controller, escorted Mark's remains home from Afghanistan. Months earlier, they'd deployed together. Sergeant Bonello hadn't imagined returning home with Mark under a U.S. flag. The long trip gave him plenty of time to reflect on the friendship they'd developed.

"He was my moral compass," Sergeant Bonello said. "He made me the person I am today. We had something that was better than friendship - we were family."

Back home in Haleyville, the small town of roughly 4,000 people took the news hard. Mark's 21st STS team rallied to honor the proud University of Alabama graduate and assist his family during their mourning.

The entire town, it seemed, marshaled to honor their fallen warrior. Hundreds paid their respects at the local funeral home. Upwards of 700 people attended Mark's funeral service at the local high school.

Flags fluttered in the breeze along the 4-mile funeral procession route. Local, county and state law enforcement officers held traffic, though all on-coming drivers had simply stopped their cars, exited their cars, or sat quietly, and paid respect to their fallen son, friend, hero.

Local businesses offered tributes to Mark on their store front marquees and the people - citizens of Haleyville - turned out in droves. Young and old lined the two-lane road - some held their hat-in-hand over their heart; others crisply saluted; and many held small U.S. flags and waved them in honor of their hometown hero.

At the Winston Memorial Cemetery, hundreds surrounded Mark's casket as uniformed military members fell into ranks. With family and friends gathered, his parents, Ray and Pat Forester, brothers, David, Thad and Maj. Joseph Forester and his sister, Terri, bowed their heads as a prayer was offered.

At the cemetery, one of Mark's 21st STS combat controller brothers directed the Viper formation. On his mark, the flight of Vipers approached from the northwest three miles east of Haleyville.

Above the northern boundary of the cemetery, the No. 3 pilot pulled back on his stick, accelerating into the wild blue yonder. Under and behind him, the missing man formation continued their flight southeast over Mark's flag-draped casket.