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Five Airmen -- brothers in fight for freedom

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va. (Aug. 11, 2005) -- The remains of five Airmen, brothers in arms to bring freedom to the nation of Iraq, were buried here Aug. 11 with full military honors.

They were Maj. William Downs, 6th Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla.; Capt. Jeremy Fresques, 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, Hurlburt Field; Capt. Derek Argel, 23rd STS; Iraqi Air Force Capt. Ali Hussam Abass Alrubaeye, 3rd Squadron, Kirkuk Air Base, Iraq; and Staff Sgt. Casey Crate, 23rd STS.

Honor guard Airmen carry the remains of four U.S. Airmen and an Iraqi Airman who died May 30 in an aircraft accident in Iraq. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Amber K. Whittington.

The Airmen died May 30 near Jalula, Iraq, when their Iraqi Air Force Comp Air 7SL, a six-seat single-engine aircraft, crashed in the eastern Diyala province near the Iranian border. Major Downs and Captain Abass piloted the aircraft, while captains Fresques and Argel, and Sergeant Crate surveyed potential emergency landing fields.

Airmen from the 6th SOS, including Major Downs, are attached to the recently formed Iraqi Air Force 3rd Squadron to advise the new Iraqi air unit, to help train their maintainers and to help them stand up that squadron.

The May 30 mission the five Airmen participated in is not unlike similar missions that other branches of the U.S. military are involved with all over Iraq. The intent is to help Iraqi military members and police forces gain the experience they will need to take the reigns of their country and provide the stability needed to ensure freedom takes root there, said Lt. Gen. Michael W. Wooley, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command.

"It is important what these Airmen were doing, and very similar to what the Army is doing with the Iraqi ground forces and the Iraqi police force," General Wooley said. "It is a mission of ours that we have been given, not just to AFSOC, but to all the Air Force members that are deployed over there with the various units. It is our duty and the coalition's duty to ensure that the Iraqi military is capable of continuing on with the missions of defending their borders."

While the crew aboard the aircraft was multinational, they were united by airmanship and dedication to a common mission, General Wooley said.

"This was a tragic accident and we continue to send our thoughts and prayers out to the families of both the Iraqi pilot and the American Airmen who were affected by this accident," he said. "But in a way, this brings Airmen closer together. There is a certain bond that Airmen have, and when you go into battle together, when you go through trying situations together, it tends to make that bond even stronger."

Lt. Col. Al Phillips, 6th SOS, a friend of Captain Abass, recounted one of those trying situations, a time when the two experienced difficulty with their aircraft and were forced to land unexpectedly.

"We were coming from Baghdad back to Kirkuk and were approximately 25 nautical miles from Kirkuk when we experienced an engine flameout," Colonel Phillips said. "We had to land on a dirt road next to some farmers' fields."

The two pilots watched as farmers and other members of the local population approached the aircraft in their vehicles. Had Captain Abass been alone or with another Iraqi pilot, the situation might not have presented any difficulty, Colonel Phillips said. But at that time, the appearance of an American, especially an American military member, might have been trouble for both pilots.

"Captain Abbas didn't think we could evade without being seen, and if the local populace, the farmers, or whoever showed up at the aircraft (and) saw me, he wasn't sure how they might react," Colonel Philips said.

At Captain Abbas' recommendation, Colonel Phillips ducked out of site and began making calls to rescue forces while the captain talked with the local people and set their minds at ease.

"I thought, considering the situation we were in, that to think of this and to have the courage to actually suggest it and to speak it, it was incredible," Colonel Phillips said. "I owed him an incredible debt."

Later, Colonel Philips said, the captain explained his motive.

"Captain Abbas made the comment afterwards, and I feel this is true of everyone," Colonel Phillips said. "He said we're all brothers in the struggle for freedom. He was just implying that I'm his brother and he is my brother, that we are in this together and that we work together as a team. That's just the way I believe everybody feels."

Col. Kenneth Rodriguez, 720th Special Tactics Group commander, knew the Airmen from the 23rd STS -- their squadron is assigned to his group at Hurlburt Field. The colonel had visited the three, and others from their unit in March, just two months prior to their deaths.

"I knew them all well, and to a man, all three of them were outstanding individuals," Colonel Rodriguez said. "They were good at what they did. They were good operators, good leaders and superb teammates who put the welfare of the team in front of themselves."

Colonel Rodriguez said all five Airmen aboard the plane that day shared more in common than just their aviator status. He said they shared a common vision, a vision that is shared by all coalition partners.

"These five men, they were fighting for what they believed in," he said. "They believed in freedom for their country and they believed in eliminating terrorism."

They were so strong in their shared beliefs, the colonel said, they were willing to take risks that they knew could be life threatening.

"They and the other men and women who take this risk do that because they believe the risk is justified by the cause, and that is the case of freedom and freedom from terrorism," he said.

Colonel Rodriguez said he knows there are no words that can truly console the families of the Airmen, and no words that can replace what has been lost. But he said the families need to know their loved ones did not die in vain.

"All you can do is say they were fighting for what they believed in and their life had purpose and meaning," he said.

The identifiable remains of each Airman involved in the incident, including those of Captain Abass, were returned to their families for interment. It is those remains that were unidentifiable that were buried, as a group, in Arlington National Cemetery. The grave marker will list the names of all five Airmen.

In honor of each fallen military member, Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force chief of staff; Maj. Gen. Kamal Abdul-Sattar Barzanjy, Iraqi Air Force commander; Lt. Gen. Lance L. Smith, commander of U.S. Central Command; and Lt. Gen. Michael W. Wooley, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, presented an American flag to the American families in attendance and an Iraq flag to Captain Abass' family.