Julie Rutyna was only 12 years old when her sister pulled her out of school with news that a military chartered airplane had just crashed and her big brother might be on board.
The knock on their door came one day later.
Specialist 4 Paul Bostwick and 247 others from 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, Strike and Kill, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division were dead. Eight crew members also died when Arrow Air Flight 1285 crashed in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada on Dec. 12, 1985, following a six-month peacekeeping mission to the Sinai Peninsula in the Middle East.
“He said he was going to be home for Christmas,” Rutyna said. “He was killed two days before his 18th birthday.”
A grove of memories
Rutyna never got to see her brother grow up. A tree planted in his honor at Fort Campbell grew instead.
It was one of 256 sugar maples planted in the Task Force 3-502nd Memorial Tree Park to honor the legacy of all those killed in the crash.
Rutyna had to grow up stronger and faster in the wake of her brother’s death. He had joined the Army for the sake of their Family and that memory fueled her to carry on as Christmases passed without him.
“He makes me push harder and always put Family first,” she said. “This tragedy taught me that no one is untouchable.”
Thirty years went by before she finally had the chance to visit her brother’s tree in December 2015.
She leaned her head against the trunk and talked softly to him.
“Standing in the middle of all the trees, I found comfort and calmness,” Rutyna said.
Her husband pointed out a cluster of lady bugs living in the tree trunk. They filled Rutyna with a feeling that her brother was with her. That feeling grew even stronger when one of them crawled out of her husband’s coat later that day during another ceremony in Hopkinsville. To this day, ladybugs – and her brother’s memory – seem to find her in moments when she needs hope.
But those ladybugs don’t live in her brother’s tree anymore.
‘A work of the heart’
The trees in the grove were planted 20 feet apart and as the 30-year anniversary approached it became clear that the stand was not thriving – the trees were planted too close together. The decision was made to replace the memorial in a larger site that would provide ample space for a new grove to thrive.
A few trees were transplanted to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team’s memorial on Memorial Row, so a part of the old Gander memorial could live on there. Removal of a small group of trees across Normandy Boulevard from the large grove began in May, the large grove that included Bostwick’s tree was cut down in August.
It wasn’t something Rutyna and many others Gander survivors wanted to see happen, but it was also the only way to keep from watching the entire memorial grove die.
Amy Gallo, widow of Staff Sgt. Richard Nichols, has visited her husband’s tree countless times and spearheads an effort to keep spouses and relatives of the Strike and Kill Soldiers involved.
Over the years, Gallo has watched as trees on the inside of the grove had to be replanted repeatedly because they just couldn’t thrive.
Several years ago, she heard the first hints that something might be seriously wrong with the grove and talked to Fort Campbell’s foresters who explained there was no room for the roots to grow or for sunlight to penetrate the dense canopy.
She listened, and gave input, as plans unfolded for a memorial with new trees on 12 nearby acres.
Gallo wasn’t happy either, she said, but she also realized that planting new trees was the only way to keep the living memorial going.
“We had been promised it would never be moved,” she said. “But we did not want to watch these trees just turn brown and die. We’ve been through death before.”
Gallo was there when the Army held a decommissioning ceremony at the memorial in May. She was there in August to take some branches just before the cutting began.
As hard as it was to say goodbye to her husband’s tree, Gallo was there when the Tuckessee Woodturners gathered at a lodge in Clarksville on Aug. 24, to cut her husband’s tree into small pieces.
“This is a way for this memorial to last for us,” Gallo said, as chainsaws hummed in the background. “This is still a living memory for us. Now we will have things to keep.”
Tuckessee Woodturners is a nonprofit group of enthusiasts from North Central Tennessee and South Central Kentucky who strive to keep the art of woodturning alive through hands-on teaching and community outreach like this project for Gander survivors.
At the end of September the group will meet again to take the sections of wood they harvested from 12 of the strongest trees in the memorial grove and work them on lathes to create unique pieces. Most will become 10-inch bowls signed by the craftsmen that will be presented to surviving Families at the next anniversary ceremony on Dec. 12.
The volunteer group wanted to do something special for the Families, said club president Steven Sabinash. The members of the group like the idea of giving loved ones something to cherish and remember.
“This is something we believe in,” he said. “About half our members are veterans. It’s a work of the heart.”
During the December ceremony, Family members also will receive the bricks with their Soldier’s name that once were at the base of each tree in the grove.
The memorial grove where the trees once stood is now empty, but just across Normandy Boulevard a new group of trees are taking root.
Before the original trees were cut down, new sugar maple saplings were planted. Soon workers will move the large granite monument from its current site to the new one, which also will include paths around and through the memorial, flowers and benches.
“I think it was a good thing the new trees were in place when the old ones came down,” said Maj. Kevin Andersen, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) public affairs officer. “You could look across the street and see the new life, the new beginning. The Gander memorial was part of Fort Campbell for 33 years so everyone knew where it was.”
Not everyone who saw the trees come down knew the reason and Jared Madewell, civil engineer with the Directorate of Public Works, who is overseeing the project, said his office received numerous concerned calls the day cutting began on the large grove of trees.
More work may be visible over the next couple of months as the large granite monument with Soldiers’ names and the other markers are moved.
Andersen said Army officials know the importance of the memorial and has been careful to treat the move with “the attention and dignity it deserves.”
Work is scheduled to be finished in mid-November and the new memorial will be ready for the dedication on Dec. 12, he said.
Madewell hopes the new location, just behind the Brig. Gen. Don F. Pratt Memorial Museum, may help attract more visitors.
The Gander memorial is the “anchor of Memorial Row,” Andersen said, and important not only for those who remember the crash, but for young Soldiers who may be learning about it.
“I know it means a lot to the Families and I know it means a lot to the division,” he said. “I think the new memorial is both a fitting tribute to the old memorial, as well as a touching remembrance of the Soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
The Gander memorial has been Madewell’s top priority at DPW and he is happy with how work is progressing. There have been challenges, including bad soil conditions, but each issue has been addressed.
The new trees are thriving and there have been far fewer losses than the 20 percent that had been predicted, Madewell said. A new irrigation system and watering bags ensure each maple gets enough water and the opportunity to thrive.
The crab grass there now will be replaced with sod before December.
“You have to do these things in stages,” he said.
Sod, rose bushes and other flowers in the central area of the memorial will make it look nice.
Rutyna will never get to stand under the sugar maple where she found such comfort on the 30th anniversary of the crash, though she is looking forward to visiting Bostwick’s new tree when she returns to Fort Campbell in December.
At the 30th anniversary, she had a chance to meet many of her brother’s friends. Hearing their stories made her feel more connected to Bostwick, especially when some of his old buddies talked about how he had taken care of a dog while he was deployed to the Sinai Peninsula.
Rutyna knew how much he loved dogs. But she had never heard those stories.
The veterans talked about how Bostwick also would sneak snacks to his fellow Soldiers who had to work overnights when he could.
“I think the nice thing was just sitting there, listening to the guys talk about my brother and not having to say anything,” she said.
The bond Rutyna made with some of her brother’s friends was so strong that many made plans to gather again for the 35th anniversary. After hearing that this would be the year the trees were to be removed, they decided to reunite again in December on the 34th anniversary for the dedication of the new memorial.
Rutyna wants to be there to see her brother’s new tree, receive her brother’s brick from the old memorial and be presented with one of the bowls that the Tuckessee Woodturners create.
She hopes she will find the same comfort, and perhaps a ladybug or two, in the new grove of trees.