The annual remembrance ceremony is hosted to honor the victims of the 1985 crash in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. All 248 Soldiers were attached or assigned to 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, “Strike and Kill,” 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). The Soldiers were returning home after a six-month peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Peninsula in the Middle East.
“It was the largest single-day loss of life in the regiment’s history,” said Col. Ed Matthaidess III, commander of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Abn. Div. “Anytime you lose a Soldier it’s an emotional event. When you lose 248 Soldiers, that’s a huge chunk of the formation. Every one of those Soldiers knew tens and hundreds of people, so the incident resonated across the brigade, division and community.”
Before the ceremony began, many Family members strolled the paths of the memorial park, visited their loved one’s tree, and conversed with each other. Matthaidess said there is a strong core of surviving Family members who remain engaged with 2nd BCT.
“Once a Strike Soldier, always a Strike Soldier. Once a Strike Family, always a Strike Family,” he said. “This is a chance each year for us to bring those surviving Family members back and remind them they are part of this team. We never forget about them or their loved ones.”
As the ceremony drew to a close, Raquel Ocasio and her mother, Darci, walked over to Staff Sgt. Francisco Ocasio’s sugar maple tree to spend a few more minutes in his presence.
“We talk about him all of the time, but when I’m here … it’s just hard,” Darci said. “It’s breathtaking to be back here where he stood. We were here together at Fort Campbell.”
Darci was a specialist in the Army when she met Francisco during training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. They were both radio tele-tech operators.
“It was love at first sight,” she said. “He was a good guy. He loved his daughter to death. He was a good dad.”
Raquel, now an adult, was just 2 and a half years old when her father died. She doesn’t have many memories of her father, so she clings tightly to the stories her mom and Family share with her.
Standing under the branches of Francisco’s tree, Darci shared some of her fondest memories of their time together.
“Pepperoncini peppers,” she said. “That’s one of my funniest stories. Raquel was probably about a year and a half old. I was in the other room and I walked into the kitchen … he was Puerto Rican and loved spicy stuff … I came back into the kitchen and I was like ‘what’s all over her tray there?’ And he was like oh it’s just a pepper, it’s a mild pepper. She was eating them up like they were candy.”
Specialist Joey Bechtol, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 2nd BCT, who stood at Francisco’s tree in honor of his sacrifice, smiled as she shared the memory.
Bechtol presented Darci and Raquel with a token of appreciation on behalf of the brigade, a black wooden heart and a small jar of sand from MFO South Camp, Sham el Sheikh, Egypt. The accompanying note read “A Strike Soldier carried this sand home to Fort Campbell in remembrance of our fallen TF 3-502nd Soldiers and the survivors of Gander. Never Forget.”
“Being able to meet the Family members is something really special,” Bechtol said. “To be part of this memorial is such an honor.”
Billy Goble was attached to 3-502nd Inf. Regt. and served as a motor pool squad leader and mechanic.
“There were 16 of us in total and there are nine trees out here that were part of the motor pool,” Goble said, looking out over the field of sugar maple trees.
A split-second decision to switch seats with his roommate Pfc. Kelly Graham forever altered the lives of the two Soldiers. One made it home safely, while the other did not.
“I am here honoring Kelly,” Goble said.
During the ceremony, Goble was inducted as a Distinguished and Honorary Member of the 502nd Infantry Regiment for his contributions that have enhanced the morale of spouses, widows, veterans and Strike Soldiers.
“In the years after the Gander crash, Mr. Goble personally connected a network of more than 30 Task Force 3-502nd Inf. Regt. veterans to help them manage survivor’s guilt, while further making innumerable contributions to our annual memorial ceremony,” Matthaidess said.
Goble’s contributions to the regiment are immeasurable, he said.
“Each of these Soldiers had parents, wives and children,” Goble said. “Their Families stretched out far and wide reaching the corners of the nation.”
The ripple effect of grief radiating from the accident has touched the lives of thousands of people, he said.
“I of course never had a chance to meet or serve with our fallen Task Force 3-502nd Inf. Regt. Soldiers, but I still feel their presence in our regiment and brigade,” Matthaidess said. “I feel it on days like this. I feel it when I see the regimental colors each morning. But I mostly feel it because of the dedication of our veterans and surviving Families. I know you all are grateful to have had those Strike Soldiers in your lives, and we are grateful to have you in ours.”