Give gratitude to next ‘Greatest Generation’

On Feb.18, some six miles away from Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport in the Horn of Africa, the lives of four American airmen were cut short abruptly. Capt. Ryan P. Hall, Capt. Nicholas S. Whitlock, 1st Lt. Justin J. Wilkens and Senior Airman Julian S. Scholten were returning from a surveillance and reconnaissance mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom when their single-engine U-28A aircraft suddenly crashed. None of the four aircrew members survived.

Scholten had enlisted just over four years earlier yet already had deployed three times. He grew up in Japan, California, Germany and Colorado, eventually attending high school in Upper Marlboro, Md. After Julian’s death, friends and family there held a candlelight vigil for him at the school. They wanted to do something to honor him, as they could not all attend his funeral service in Florida. His younger brother remembered Julian as smart and driven. He recalled how Julian would cheer him up with a game of catch if he was ever feeling lonely.

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Wilkens received his commission through the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2009. He, too, had deployed three times. Growing up in Bend, Ore., he belonged to a glider club whose fellow members would rib Justin because he never wore shoes. His preference was for flip-flops, and even when he would visit during leave, he would show up at the club shoeless. After Justin’s death, one of his instructors recalled their flights together, when they would often be joined by the area’s birds of prey. He continues to think of Justin in that way — still soaring with the eagles.

Whitlock, having received his commission through the Office Training School in 2006, had been in the Air Force a little longer than Justin and Julian, and was on his fifth deployment. Growing up in Newnan, Ga., Nick played football and baseball, was an Eagle Scout and volunteered with a group that took disabled veterans on hunting and fishing trips. When he was returned to his hometown for the funeral, a long procession of law enforcement officers and motorcycle riders escorted his hearse to the funeral home as scores of local residents lined the streets, waving American flags.

Hall, a 2004 graduate of The Citadel, was the most senior member of the crew and was on his seventh deployment. His best friend in college remembers him as someone who laughed a lot and made friends easily. At his funeral, Ryan’s dad noted that some guests had traveled from as far away as Guam and Afghanistan. It was clear, he said, that Ryan touched the lives of everyone he met. Ryan was laid to rest where he grew up, in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the Air Force Academy Cemetery.

These four heroes exemplify what is great about our nation and demonstrate, in compelling fashion, the importance of honoring those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our collective liberty. As the stories of Julian, Justin, Nick and Ryan remind us, our fallen and missing veterans are foremost our family members and our friends. And as another Memorial Day approaches, we are grateful for the opportunity to honor those who have perished or are missing while defending our nation. 

I recount their stories also because, on May 23, I will be about a mile and a half from Ryan’s final resting place, at the commencement ceremony for the Air Force Academy’s Class of 2012. Like Julian, Justin, Nick and Ryan, the graduates will hail from all over our great nation. And just as the four fallen comrades were likely excited, nervous and proud as they embarked on their Air Force careers, I suspect that some of the Air Force’s newest officers in the crowd that day will feel much in the same way.

Additionally, the increasingly complex challenges that our nation faces suggest that, like the four aircrew members who collectively had deployed 18 times by the time of the crash in the Horn of Africa, these brand new airmen soon might find themselves in harm’s way in service to our nation. They are joining all those who have raised their hand, taken the oath, and pledged to defend our nation. This is a generation of men and women — the next “Greatest Generation” — who deserve our gratitude.

This Memorial Day, as we honor those who gave their lives or remain missing for America’s security, let us also honor those who are currently serving our nation as members of the armed forces. They, along with the families who support them, have rightly earned America’s respect and gratitude for their service. 

Schwartz is chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force.


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