Friday June 29, 2012
It would be an unforgettable and horrific morning in the life of a military lawyer from South Jersey.
The cellphone of Lt. Col. Sally Stenton rang shortly after 10 a.m. that day in a NATO office at Kabul International Airport in Afghanistan.
When the Cherry Hill native answered, the caller calmly blurted out disturbing news to her colleague and Air Force superior.
"Ma'am," said the female Air Force major, who was calling from a nearby Afghan headquarters building where Stenton often worked as an adviser, "Where are you? We are in the headquarters building and we're taking on gunfire."
Stenton, a military lawyer advising the Afghan Air Force on legal issues, said she could hear gunshots in the background of that phone call April 27, 2011. The call was made as an Afghan pilot was killing nine other advisers - eight Air Force airmen and a civilian contractor raised in South Jersey - inside the Afghan Air Force headquarters on one side of the airport.
A memorial to all nine is under construction at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst because the slain Air Force officers trained at the Air Advisor Academy there before deploying to Afghanistan. The name of retired Army lieutenant and helicopter pilot James McLaughlin of Santa Rosa, Calif., a Mainland High School and Temple University biology graduate raised in Somers Point, Atlantic County, will be on the memorial because he also was advising the Afghan military, but as a civilian contractor.
"I lost five good friends that day," Stenton lamented in interviews last week on and off the Joint Base, recalling she immediately alerted the building she was in but had to stay behind in a 438th Air Expeditionary Wing office on the NATO side of the air base because she was not one of those permitted to respond to the mass shooting. She subsequently found out the major who called her escaped though a window.
"I may have actually gotten the first call from the building. It was - bar none - the absolutely worst day of my life," said Stenton, who once worked for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office as an investigator.
Normally, she said she would have been working with her Afghan interpreter in a legal office across the hall from the command and control center where eight were killed with the assailant's 9mm handgun. The ninth was killed in the hallway outside her legal office following a firefight with the gunman, Lt. Col. Ahmed Gul, who had worked with the advisers and who was found shot to death in one of the offices either by suicide or by an Afghani.
That April day, however, Stenton's Afghan interpreter was elsewhere, so she had to report to her wing office on the NATO side of the airport.
When Stenton was allowed to return to the legal office in the Afghan headquarters the next week, she found a bullet hole in her chair back while another round had shattered a window behind her desk. "Had I been there, I may have been killed or had to jump out the window," she said.
She said it does not make sense to her how the shooter could have killed every U.S. airmen in the command room with 36 rounds from the same handgun when the victims all carried side weapons unless there was complicity among some of the Afghans who worked in the same room but were not killed.
There was no U.S. autopsy of the assailant, who received a hero's burial in his country and whose motive for the killings is unclear.
"This was not just a personal loss for all of us and the families. For the Air Force this was a huge loss - seven commissioned officers and a noncommissioned officer with all their decades of training and experience. The memorial is an amazing and appropriate tribute," said the 52-year-old lieutenant colonel, who is also a graduate of the Air Advisor Academy and who is retiring July 1 after 25 years in the military.
For the Air Advisor Memorial dedication July 27, the Joint Base, restricted to public access since 9/11, will be open so the public can attend along with the victims' families, friends and military personnel.
Stenton, who is serving as a liaison to the families and helping to coordinate lodging for their July visit, said there would be no memorial without Col. Olaf Holm, commandant of the relatively new Air Advisor Academy at the Joint Base.
It was not only Holm's idea to pay tribute to the slain advisers, but his design for the V- and A-shaped stone memorial that features a waterfall. The $150,000 project is being financed not by the government, but through donations to the U.S. Air Force Air Advisor Memorial Foundation of which Holm serves as president.
In an interview Friday morning after checking progress on the memorial on McGuire Boulevard behind the academy, Holm said the academy was something the eight airmen had in common.
"They came from all over the country and were trained and stationed all over the country and there's no other place in the military they all could call home," he said.
At the academy, military receive instruction in languages, the region of overseas deployment and its culture as well as field and combat skills so they can assist, train and advise foreign personnel and military in order to build partnerships. The nine were working for the NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan to train members of the Afghan Air Force (AAF) to become an independent and operationally capable force to provide future security of Afghanistan.
As a result of the Afghanistan incident, Holm said the military has increased security there and increased weapons and combative training at the academy to deal with insider shootings and prevent further incidents.
He said the U.S. has an agreement to provide advisers to Afghanistan through 2024.
Holm said he also wanted a memorial to make the local community outside the Joint Base aware of the sacrifice that involved those who had attended the academy since few people realized the base's connection with the victims.
"And the community has rallied around the project and really responded. I think this whole New Jersey-Pennsylvania-New York region is just great," he said.
EP Henry Corp. in Wrightstown donated most of the stone. Among others who donated time, skills or materials were the base Civil Engineering Squadron, union carpenters and the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades in Philadelphia.
Holm said the A-shape of the memorial walls - one 40 feet long - stand for air adviser and the winged shapes of the A and V also symbolizes the wings of aviation.
On Friday, workmen from Eric's Nursery and Garden Center of Mount Laurel were at the site. One was cutting a trough in the top of a waterfall wall so water can be pumped up and then cascade down hand-hewn stones. It took three weeks to hand-chisel the stones to fit into place, said landscape architect Christopher Kendzierski of the nursery and garden center.
Jan Eble of Egg Harbor, sister of victim McLaughlin, called her brother a hero who believed in what the country was doing in Afghanistan, who had many Afghan friends and who was mentoring Afghan boys like a Boy Scout leader would.
"I am very grateful for the memorial," she said. "It is heartwarming and will give me and the rest of my family a place to go to connect with him without traveling clear across the country to where he is buried in California."
Source: Carol Comegno, courierpostonline.com