Memorial Day: remembering, honoring RAIDR 21

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. John Gordinier
  • 2nd Bomb Wing Public Affairs
Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service to their country. As this day approaches, Barksdale remembers the tragic loss of aircrew RAIDR 21 July 21, 2008.

Aircrew from Barksdale were deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, as part of the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron in 2008. A B-52H Stratofortress, call sign RAIDR 21, took off with an aircrew of six from Andersen AB, to perform a flyby for Guam's Liberation Day Parade.

The crew onboard were: Maj. Christopher "Fireball" Cooper, Maj. Brent "B-Dub" Williams, Capt. Michael "Bull" Dodson, 1st Lt. Robert Gerren, 1st Lt. Joshua "Shaman" Shepherd and Col. George "Doc" Martin.

Guam's crowd waited patiently for the B-52H "BUFF" and two F-15 Eagles to scream by, but the F-15s were the only aircraft seen.

Col. Thomas Hesterman, 2nd Bomb Wing vice commander, was the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron commander at the time.

"I just completed an 18 hour sortie that day and landed at about 4 a.m.," Colonel Hesterman said, reflecting on that tragic day. "As I was walking out, the aircrew of RAIDR 21 were entering and that's when I met Colonel Martin, the surgeon, for the first time. We called him Doc. He was very nice, pleasant natured and was excited for his flight...I believe this was going to be his first time up in a BUFF."

Colonel Hesterman said he went to sleep not long after, but a few hours later, he was awoken to the news that RAIDR 21 had gone missing.

"My initial thought and hope was that they lost communications or if the aircraft did crash, that they got out," Colonel Hesterman said. "But after search and rescue efforts began, it didn't look promising."

RAIDR 21 had tragically crashed into the sea and the crew onboard didn't survive.

Grieving aircrew and fellow Airmen at Barksdale and Guam focused all of their attention to care for the families of the fallen Airmen and to continue the mission as best as possible.

"Even as we all grieved, we still had a mission," Colonel Hesterman said. "We knew they would have wanted us to continue the mission, that's how they were. They were all a great group of quality officers.

"A squadron is like a family," said Colonel Hesterman. "Aircrew become very close to one another, especially on deployments, because we live, work and play together. I knew the aircrew of RAIDR 21 well.

"'Fireball' Cooper was very full of life," he said, with a smile. "He loved Guam and did everything there was to do on Guam. He was the type of guy that maximized every day and always learned new things, which is how he got his call sign. He was a 'Fireball' of life.

"'Bull' Dodson was one of our best co-pilots and flight commanders," he continued. "'B-Dub Williams was a fast burner and I have no doubt he would have received lieutenant colonel below the zone. He was that good."

Maj. Joseph Babboni, 11th Bomb Squadron assistant director of operations, knew Major Williams as well.

"He was one of the first guys I met when I got here in 2007," Major Babboni said. "He was good natured and loved to laugh. B-Dub was all about boosting morale and liked to have fun."

According to Colonel Hesterman, Josh "Shaman" Sheppard was a great navigator and had a gift for foreseeing problems before anyone else knew there was a problem, which is why he was given the call sign "Shaman."

Lieutenant Garren did not have a call sign at the time of the incident.

"He didn't have a call sign, so we gave him one to honor him after the crash during a special ceremony," Colonel Hesterman said. "We were all hurting, but we wanted to honor him with a call sign. He cared about his hair and was a real cool character, so we named him 'Fonzie.'"

Colonel Hesterman credits faith with helping him through this situation.

"If I didn't have the faith that I have, it would have been much more difficult," he said. "This was a huge loss. These guys will be with me forever."

Even though Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service to their country, the aircrew of RAIDR 21 is honored and thought of much more than one day per year by many throughout the bomber community.

Colonel Hesterman said he thinks about them from time to time with letters shared with family members of the fallen. It is something dear and personal to him and he thinks about the crew more than just one day a year.

To honor and remember RAIDR 21, memorials have been constructed throughout Barksdale and Guam to include a briefing room in the 20th Bomb Squadron, a flag memorial in a briefing room of the 96th Bomb Squadron, plaques and murals in the 2nd Operations Group and a memorial at Andersen AFB, Guam.

Aircrew throughout the bomber community also wear a RAIDR 21 patch on their flight suit. Some wear it on their Tab area, some choose to wear the patch on their shoulder on Fridays.

"We wear the patch to honor our fallen brothers of RAIDR 21," said Major Babboni. "The honor patch was sold to aircrew throughout the community, and the money collected was used to develop scholarship funds in the names of the fallen crew members and to help the families left behind."

Major Babboni said he wears his RAIDR 21 honor patch from time to time to remember the aircrew.

"It's a reminder that something like that can happen to any of us," Major Babboni said.