Written by Maria McClure
Fort Campbell Public Affairs Office
Fort Campbell, KY – U.S. Army Soldiers, Families, veterans and friends gathered December 12th, 2018, at the Task Force 3-502nd Memorial Park for one final remembrance ceremony.
“Today is a time to say goodbye. Today is the last day that the Gander remembrance will be conducted on this hallowed ground,” said U.S. Army Col. Joseph Escandon, commander of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), in the opening remarks of this speech. “We could be sad, but there is much to rejoice in for this is a time of renewal.”
The memorial is dedicated to 248 Soldiers – all of whom were attached or assigned to 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, “Strike and Kill,” 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), and eight crewmembers, who died in when their flight crashed shortly after takeoff from Gander, Newfoundland, Canada.
The Soldiers were returning after a six-month peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Peninsula in the Middle East.
In honor of those lost in the crash a memorial was created in 1986, inspired by a 15-year-old Canadian teen, Janice Johnson Nikkel, who wished to donate her babysitting money to plant trees for a living memorial.
“At a time before the internet, before GoFundMe or Facebook fundraisers Janice’s idea spread as fast as if the web existed,” Escandon said in his speech. “Soon the donations poured in and the Gander memorial, a living memorial, was given life.”
More than 30 years later, the trees stopped flourishing. It was determined by the Fort Campbell forester the because the trees were planted only 20 feet apart the roots have become intertwined and they are slowly dying, said Chris Collins, civil engineer with the Fort Campbell Directorate of Public Works.
Together with the Families impacted by the Gander tragedy, the decision was made to relocate the memorial.
“The Gander memorial is sacred ground, and we knew from the beginning that we needed the Families involved as much as possible,” Escandon said. “The trees have always been the heart of the memorial, but what truly makes it a living memorial is the people – the widow who leaves a gift on Christmas Eve at the base of her husband’s tree, the veteran who stops and shares a moment of quiet reflection. That’s the legacy we want to continue, and I think the final design does a fantastic job of paying tribute to that.”
Before the remembrance ceremony Families and 3-502nd Infantry Regiment veterans had the opportunity to see the layout of the new memorial during a reception at the Brig. Gen. Don F. Pratt Memorial Museum.
“I think the new memorial is absolutely beautiful, it just touches my heart that they are not forgotten – at least not here,” said U.S. Army veteran Frank Moore, who in 1985 attached to 3-502nd Inf. Regt. during the mission in the Sinai. “I am one of the honor guards for the VFW in Mount Gilead, Ohio, and I attend funerals for Soldiers on a weekly basis and every time I hear taps I just go back to that time.”
In 1985, U.S. Army veteran Dennis McHargue had served for a year and a half in D Company, 3-502nd Infantry Regiment, as a tow gunner when he came down on orders to Germany, while his fellow Soldiers were preparing to deploy to the Sinai. Although his first sergeant and commander tried to get his orders deleted, McHargue was sent to Bamberg, Germany. He said he learned of the crash on the Armed Forces Network.
“A lot of those guys I knew personally,” McHargue said. “It was tough.”
Looking over the layout of the new memorial, he appreciated the thought that went into the design.
As with the current memorial, each Soldier and crewmember will be represented by a tree. What is different in the new design is that two sugar maples will stand on either side of the monument representing the commander and the command sergeant major of Task Force 3-502nd – Lt. Col. Marvin Jeffcoat and Command Sgt. Maj. Hasland O. Black. The remaining sugar maples will be set back from the monument on a 40-foot grid as if standing in formation and will be grouped into companies.
“I like this because the Soldiers are with their respective companies,” McHargue said. “And I like that the 101st still remembers them.”
The new memorial is scheduled to open December 12th, 2019.
“Next year we will gather again to remember our fallen, the location will different but familiar the monuments will be there and, of course, there will be trees,” Escandon said during his speech. “New life, renewal, ensuring that this memorial will live for another 100 years at least.”
Although the closing of this chapter in their lives is bittersweet, those who have lost so much look forward to a new beginning.
“I can’t wait to see the new memorial when it’s completed – you know, every one of them is my brother,” Moore said.