203rd RED HORSE honors its fallen on tragedy’s 20th anniversary

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Lucretia Cunningham
  • 192nd Wing

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. Airmen from the 192nd Wing’s 203rd Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers (RED HORSE) came together March 3, 2021, at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of what's known as the worst peacetime aviation disaster in National Guard history and the worst loss of life in the Virginia National Guard since World War II.

Family members, friends and former members of the 203rd RED HORSE also attended to gather around a dedicated memorial site for the 18 Virginia Air National Guard engineers and three Florida National Guard aviators who were killed when their plane crashed near Unadilla, Georgia, on March 3, 2001. 

This is the first memorial ceremony the squadron has hosted since 2016 — past ceremonies were held annually. In keeping with tradition, Col. Stock Dinsmore, 192nd Mission Support Group commander, officiated the event as he had in years past. Dinsmore was a member of the 203rd RED HORSE for more than 21 years and served more than four years as the squadron’s commander. 

Dinsmore said he remembered the fallen Airmen and the events of that day in 2001 but wanted to focus on the significance of recognizing March 3rd, 20 years later. 

“Normally, 20 years is associated with the completion of a military career; there aren’t many people still serving in the Virginia National Guard, or probably still serving in general, who were a part of the unit that day,” Dinsmore said. “And as there become fewer members for our new Airmen to ask questions to, to hear the stories...how do you inspire that connection with others in the future?” 

“This memorial will always be a place of remembrance…but that connection is different,” he continued. “It’s not the same when you look at the names, you see the faces, you hear the voices, you remember the handshakes. I think it’s important we continue to have these milestone ceremonies...to remain on guard eternally.”

Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, officially hosted and attended the event with Command Chief Master Sgt. James Profita, Virginia National Guard command senior enlisted leader. In his opening remarks, Williams referenced the 203rd RED HORSE’s operations tempo and members who couldn’t attend in person. 

A team of RED HORSE Airmen, including the squadron’s current commander, Lt. Col. Jeffrey E. Getz, deployed in September 2020. 

“The memory of these heroes is carried with each Airman at the 203rd,” Williams said. “And, since this tragedy occurred, the 203rd has become one of the most deployed units in the Virginia National Guard, if not the entire Air Force, and is currently overseas on federal active duty.”

The squadron provides highly mobile civil engineering teams to support contingency and special operations worldwide and returned from another federal active duty mobilization in October 2016 after spending eight months in Southwest Asia. During the deployment, 203rd RED HORSE Airmen completed 35 projects at 11 different locations in seven countries in support of Operations Freedom’s Sentinel and Inherent Resolve. The squadron also conducted deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, 2006 and 2011.

Elayne Summerell attended the ceremony to commemorate her brother, Tech. Sgt. Richard Summerell of Franklin, Virginia. In his memory, Summerell left her brother’s favorite candy bar under the Bradford pear tree where a flag and plaque lie with his name. The tree is one of 22 planted on a winding path around the meditation garden memorial made to honor each one of the fallen Guardsmen. Under the 22nd tree is a plaque honoring those who died during the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2001 — four days before the groundbreaking of the 203rd RED HORSE’s memorial site on Sept. 15, 2001.  

Retired Col. Thomas Turlip, 203rd RED HORSE commander in 2001, also attended and reflected on the day of the tragedy and the events that followed. He called the 30,000-square-foot memorial site a “labor of love.” 

“I made a promise to the families that we would not forget, that we would always remember those guys,” Turlip said. “One of the former 203rd members came up with this concept you see in front of you right here. We had an enormous fundraising activity go on...and every RED HORSE squadron, active duty, reserve and guard, all built here what you see.” 

During the event, an Honor Guard Airman ceremoniously laid a wreath in front of a 7,000-pound, black granite boulder with the names of the 21 National Guardsmen etched into its polished surface. Master Sgt. Patrick Maguire, 203rd RED HORSE Logistics Plans noncommissioned officer in charge, read each name before a moment of silence and the playing of “Taps.” 

203rd RED HORSE Airmen remember:
· Senior Master Sgt. James Beninati 
· Tech. Sgt. Paul Blancato
· Master Sgt. Ernest Blawas 
· Tech. Sgt. Andrew H. Bridges
· Senior Master Sgt. Eric Bulman 
· Tech. Sgt. Paul Cramer 
· Master Sgt. Michael East
· Tech. Sgt. Ronald Elkin 
· Tech. Sgt. James Ferguson 
· Tech. Sgt. Randy Johnson 
· Staff Sgt. Mathrew Kidd 
· Senior Master Sgt. Michael Lane 
· Master Sgt. Edwin Richardson 
· Master Sgt. Dean Shelby 
· Tech. Sgt. John Sincavage 
· Tech. Sgt. Gregory Skurupey 
· Tech. Sgt. Richard Summerell 
· Maj. Frederick Watkins 

Florida National Guard Soldiers remembered:
· Chief Warrant Officer 4 Johnny W. Duce 
· Chief Warrant Officer 2 Eric P. Larson
· Staff Sgt. Robert F. Ward Jr.