Written by Staff Sgt. Sierra Fown
2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (AA) Public Affairs
Fort Campbell, KY – To any passerby, the trees planted on the corner of Screaming Eagle Boulevard and Tennessee Avenue at Fort Campbell may just appear to be an ordinary, insignificant grove.
To 101st Airborne Soldiers and veterans, the meaning of those trees are as deep-rooted as the foundation they have sprouted on.
And to think, it all started with a letter.In June of 1985, Soldiers with Task Force 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, embarked on a peacekeeping mission to South Camp in Sinai, Egypt.
The mission included an operation with the Multinational Force and Observer, in which the Task Force played a vital role in monitoring the interactions between Egypt and Sinai.
Task Force Soldiers did what any Soldiers on mission do – exactly what they are told, until it was time for them to head back to the country they loved so much that they were willing to sacrifice time away from their families.
For 248 of those Soldiers, so much more than time was sacrificed.
On the frigid, early morning of December 12th, 1985, Soldiers with the Task Force boarded Arrow Air Flight 1285 in Newfoundland, Canada. It was the final layover before they were set to arrive home at Fort Campbell, Kentucky – just in time for the Christmas.
The plane was no higher than 1,000 feet in the air, and less than one mile from the take-off strip before it stalled and crashed, killing all crew-members and Screaming Eagle Soldiers on board.
News of the tragedy spread throughout the world.
“There are no survivors,” said then 2nd Brigade Combat Team commander Col. John Herrling to family members patiently awaiting their Soldiers’ return.
“Love is never wasted, love is never lost, love lives on and sees us through sorrow,” said President Ronald Reagan to the Nation.
“What can I do to help,” asked Janice Nikkel, an Oakville, Ontario native, who was 15 at the time of the crash.
Nikkel, like any other 15 year old girl, was concerned with boys, friends, and High School at the time of the crash. The impact of the tragedy didn’t resonate with her until her mother put it in perspective.
Nikkel said her mother compared the catastrophe to the Fort Campbell community to how it would be if 10 classrooms full of students at Nikkel’s school passed away right before Christmas.
“Wow,” said Nikkel. “That was a significant loss. I asked her what Canadians were doing about this and she said she didn’t know,” Nikkel said.
Nikkel thought long and hard formulating ideas on what she could possibly do at the ripe age of 15 to reach out to these families.
“I wrote a letter to our big Toronto Star newspaper and said I would like to donate my babysitting money to [buy trees] to plant as a living memorial to these Soldiers who died in our country,” she said. “I thought ‘I’m 15 years old, what can I do’. But it was something.”
The small, albeit meaningful, gesture reached out to more than just the Fort Campbell community.
In less than a year, Nikkel and her family were standing on Fort Campbell grass planting 256 Canadian Maple Trees – 8 for every crew member that perished, and 248 to represent every Soldier that passed on that fateful morning.
“I had the privilege of speaking before over 1000 Soldiers and Family Members in a service that dedicated a new forest of trees as a living memorial for these soldiers who died in our country of Canada”, said Nikkel.
Nikkel spent the day in September of 1986 with the Commanding General of the 101st Airborne Division at the time, Maj. Gen. Burton Patrick.
“To be forgotten is to die in vain,” Patrick said. “Today [Janice and her fellow Canadians] have seen to it that our fallen Soldiers will not be forgotten.”
Patrick, Nikkel and her family toured Fort Campbell, of course stopping at what this Division and Installation is known for – the Sabalauski Air Assault School.
“They made me an honorary member that day,” said Nikkel.
Nikkel said it is her family’s tradition to plant trees in honor of loved ones lost.
Bringing that tradition to honor those Soldiers killed impacted so many Gold Star families in ways Nikkel could not begin to imagine.
“I didn’t know them personally, but they would put their arms around me and just weep on my shoulder,” said Nikkel. “Here I was 16 years old and just feeling their grief in a way I could never imagine. Up to that time I hadn’t lost anyone close to me besides grandparents and that’s the right order. It’s not the right order when the person lost is 18 or 19 years old.”
Nikkel received letters from former President Reagan and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, praising her for her genuine and heartfelt gesture.
“My special commendation goes to Frank Lockyear of ReTree International, to the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation and to Janice Johnston whose dream of an appropriate tribute is here fulfilled,” Reagan wrote. “Let these trees stand as a visible reminder that America is the land of the free only because it has been the home of the brave.”
Nikkel, her husband and her children visited the grove again in 2010. The influence her donation made decades ago, still reverberates with loved ones today.
“At the security gate, the gate guard asked me the purpose of my visit to Fort Campbell,” said Nikkel.
“I told her I wanted to show my kids the trees I’d helped plant 25 years ago. She dropped everything, looked me in the eye and said, ‘My cousin was on that plane. Thank you so much for doing what you did’,” said Nikkel.
“She got teary, I got teary. I couldn’t believe the impact was still felt so deeply,” said Nikkel.
The 30th anniversary of Gander is this December, and a planning team has been organized to commemorate the event.
The trees still stand strong that corner, and plaques adorn them with names honoring each person who died that morning.
“I’m very humbled by the whole thing because there was so many people who made it happen,” Janice said. “It took one letter. Sometimes that’s all it takes.”