VNG remembers victims of 203rd RED HORSE 2001 crash

Family members, friends and Airmen assigned to the Virginia Air National Guard’s Virginia Beach-based 203rd RED HORSE Squadron conduct a memorial service March 3, 2016, at Camp Pendleton to honor and remember 18 unit members and three Florida Army Guard aviators killed 15 years earlier. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

Every year, on March 3rd, Airmen of the Virginia Air National Guard’s 203rd Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers Squadron, 192nd Wing, along with their family, friends and the entire Virginia National Guard community remember and commemorate those killed in the worst peacetime aviation disaster in National Guard History.

Eighteen members of the 203rd RED HORSE were killed alongside three aviators from the Florida Army National Guard’s Detachment 1, 171st Aviation Battalion when the C-23 Sherpa they were flying in crashed in a cotton field near Unadilla, Georgia, March 3, 2001.

The 203rd members were returning home after completing a two-week military construction project at Hurlburt Field, Florida. It was the worst loss of life in the Virginia National Guard since World War II.

In 2016, family members and friends of the fallen Airmen and Soldiers gathered at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to mark the 15th anniversary of the tragedy.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since that tragic day when we lost 18 fellow Airmen and three Army Guard brothers in Unadilla, Georgia,” said Lt. Col. Stock Dinsmore, who was the commander of the 203rd RED HORSE Squadron in 2016. “Others lost husbands, sons, fathers, brothers and we will never forget the sacrifices of those individuals, those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

“It seems like it happened yesterday,” said Laverne Johnson, of Emporia, who lost her husband, Tech. Sgt. Randy Johnson, in the crash. Johnson traveled to Virginia Beach for the 2016 ceremony with her daughter LaDeja, who was 9 months old when her father died.

“I feel like he helped a lot of people while he was on Earth,” LaDeja Johnson, who was wearing one of her father’s dog tags, said. “I’m very proud of him. It’s good to know he left a footprint here that no one will ever forget.”

Both agreed that, although it was difficult, it was ultimately good to be at the ceremony.

“It’s good to be here,” LaDeja Johnson said. “I love seeing the other people.

“The best thing is seeing the other family members,” agreed Laverne Johnson. “We have a fellowship. That will never be broken.”

The 203rd is currently commanded by Lt. Col. Jeffrey E. Getz, who took command from Dinsmore in April 2018. The unit provides a highly mobile civil engineering response force to support contingency operations worldwide.

Another formal memorial ceremony is scheduled for the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, in 2021.

203rd RED HORSE Airmen lost in the crash:
• Senior Master Sgt. James Beninati of Virginia Beach, Virginia
• Tech. Sgt. Paul Blancato of Norfolk, Virginia
• Master Sgt. Ernest Blawas of Virginia Beach, Virginia
• Tech. Sgt. Andrew H. Bridges of Chesapeake, Virginia
• Senior Master Sgt. Eric Bulman of Virginia Beach, Virginia
• Tech. Sgt. Paul Cramer of Norfolk, Virginia
• Master Sgt. Michael East of Parksley, Virginia
• Tech. Sgt. Ronald Elkin of Norfolk, Virginia
• Tech. Sgt. James Ferguson of Newport News, Virginia
• Tech. Sgt. Randy Johnson of Emporia, Virginia
• Staff Sgt. Mathrew Kidd of Hampton, Virginia
• Senior Master Sgt. Michael Lane of Moyock, North Carolina
• Master Sgt. Edwin Richardson of Virginia Beach, Virginia
• Master Sgt. Dean Shelby of Virginia Beach, Virginia
• Tech. Sgt. John Sincavage of Chesapeake, Virginia
• Tech. Sgt. Gregory Skurupey of Gloucester, Virginia
• Tech. Sgt. Richard Summerell of Franklin, Virginia
• Maj. Frederick Watkins of Virginia Beach, Virginia

Florida Army National Guard Soldiers lost in the crash:
• Chief Warrant Officer 4 Johnny W. Duce of Orange Park, Florida
• Chief Warrant Officer 2 Eric P. Larson of Land-O-Lakes, Florida
• Staff Sgt. Robert F. Ward Jr. of Lakeland, Florida