Many join in N.J. memorial for fallen air advisers

NJ Air Force Memorial EP HenryFrom inside the Afghan air force headquarters in Kabul came the pop-pop-pop of gunfire.

A disgruntled Afghan pilot emptied a 9mm pistol into a group of U.S. air advisers working to rebuild that nation's air force.

Several were hit and slumped at a table. One air adviser from another room was shot to death after wounding the gunman.

In the end, nine Americans - eight Air Force airmen and a retired Army lieutenant colonel - lay dead, along with the Afghan officer.

The loss in April 2011 - one of a string of such incidents in Afghanistan - stunned Air Force Col. J. Olaf Holm, commandant of the Air Advisor Academy at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County.

Most of the victims had trained at the academy. Holm had met all of them and worked closely - in an earlier Afghanistan deployment - with the retired Army officer, a military contractor.

Why not honor their memory with a memorial at the Joint Base, he thought. It would be the first air adviser memorial in the country, a place where the nine, and all air advisers, could be remembered for their sacrifices.

But where would he begin and what would it cost? No government funds had been authorized.

The colonel started making calls - and was surprised by the overwhelming response.

From a paver manufacturer in Wrightstown and paver engraver in Lindenwold to a trade school in Media and nursery and garden center in Mount Laurel came offers of free and discounted materials, labor, and expertise to create the Air Advisor Memorial, now set to be dedicated at a July 27 ceremony.

"With everybody I talked to, I'd immediately hear: 'What can I do to help?' " Holm said. "It's been great to see the support."

Contributions poured in from companies, organizations, and volunteers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and across the world, he said. They helped pay for parts of the project that were not covered by others.

Fund-raising runs and marches by U.S. and NATO service members in Kabul and Kandahar, Afghanistan, brought in $8,500. A similar event at Langley Air Force Base, Va., raised $4,300.

Two $10,000 donations came in - one from L-3 MPRI, the Alexandria, Va., military contractor who employed one of the slain air advisers, and the other from the McGuire Officers' Spouses' Club at the Joint Base. The spouse of one of the fallen separately donated $3,000 and another widow donated $2,000.

"One of the things we wanted to do is build awareness in the community," Holm said. "Our students spend time together at restaurants here; they visit Philadelphia and New York, and go to the 9/11 Memorial.

"This is their home," he said. "But most of the community, even people at the base, didn't realize that [most of the slain air advisers] trained here."

A year after the loss, service members from the Joint Base, including Holm, began a march from the top of the Freedom Tower in New York City to the Joint Base.

They carried pavers engraved with the names of those who died a year earlier: Maj. David Brodeur, Maj. Charles Ransom, Maj. Phil Ambard, Maj. Jeffrey Ausborn, Maj. Raymond Estelle, Lt. Col. Frank Bryant, Capt. Nathan Nylander, Master Sgt. Tara Brown, and retired Army Lt. Col. James McLaughlin.

The marchers started April 26 and arrived at the base on the 27th - the anniversary of the shooting - where they held a solemn remembrance ceremony, placing the pavers into the Air Advisor Memorial. Their effort brought in an additional $6,000 in contributions.

"I want everybody to know about the sacrifices of people from the academy," said Holm, who has led the effort as president of the Air Advisor Memorial Fund. "We're now selling bricks engraved with the names of anyone contributing $100 to the memorial" along with a three-line message.

The project - which would have cost more than $150,000 - couldn't be nearly complete, though, without lots of help. Holm found enthusiastic support at EP Henry, a manufacturer of concrete products, paving stones, and retaining walls. The company has headquarters in Woodbury and a location in Wrightstown, near the base.

"I had some basic drawings" of a memorial that formed two A's, he said. The A's - one large, the other small - stand for Air Advisors and "symbolically looked like two aircraft flying in formation."

"The stones in the memorial were symbolic, too," Holm said, "because we help build the air forces of other nations, stone by stone."

Each leg of the larger A in the earth-hued memorial is 40 feet long and starts from the ground, gradually rising to a height of seven feet. The horizontal line in the A is a wall fountain. And the small A has 12-foot legs and a plaque.

Holm asked E.P. Henry what the memorial would cost. "Right away, they said: 'Don't worry about it,' " he recalled. " 'We'll take care of it.' "

The response was unexpected.

"We support those who are serving on our behalf," said J.C. Henry, president and chief executive officer of the company, which has provided complimentary "spring spruce-ups" to the properties of active military and veterans' families throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. "They're stepping up to protect us."

Others also offered help. Eric's Nursery & Garden Center in Mount Laurel took the lead in the design of the memorial, supervision of the work, and construction of a fountain. It reduced its charges and found companies to donate materials, shaving tens of thousands of dollars off the cost, said Christopher Kendzierski, Eric's landscape division manager.

Dan Hiltebeitel, a masonry instructor at the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades in Media, and a group of students volunteered their time to work on the memorial on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays during the spring, staying at the base while there.

"It's important that we show support for the people who dedicate their lives to protecting this country," said Hiltebeitel, who served six years in the Marine Corps.

More free aid came from 11 members of Carpenters Local 255 of South Jersey who poured a concrete foundation and obtained $25,000 worth of donated materials from local companies, said Andrew Bulakowski, a member of the local who worked on the job. "The labor alone would have cost $20,000," he said.

The engraved pavers - with the names of the fallen - came from PaverArt in Lindenwold, company owner Mick Seroka said. The pavers with donors' names also will be completed there, using computer-aided water-jet technology.

The memorial "is a place where all the families can come together to grieve and remember," Holm said. "And we'll honor them" along with the fallen air advisers.

Source: By Edward Colimore,