On April 8, 2000, 10 years ago Thursday, an MV-22 Osprey aircraft crashed and burst into flames during an evening noncombatant evacuation maneuver at Marana Regional Airport.
All 19 Marines aboard were killed. It remains one of the modern U.S. military's greatest losses of life on domestic soil.
The men ranged in age from 18 to 39. Fourteen were stationed with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Four were out of Quantico, Va., one at Miramar, Calif. They hailed from all over the country, six from Texas, three from California, two from Oregon, and one each from Oklahoma, Washington, Florida, Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina and Arizona.
At 10 a.m. this Saturday, April 10, some members of their families will join the Marana Nighthawk 72 Marine Corps League Detachment, members of the Marana community, Marines from greater Tucson and active Marines from Camp Pendleton, and others in solemn commemoration of the accident. They'll gather at two memorial sites, one at the entrance to Marana Regional Airport, the other a more private place at the crash site between two airport runways.
Nighthawk 72, part of the detachment's formal name, is also the call letters of the fallen Osprey. It is representative of the greater tribute that occurs each year in Marana.
"It's really special to be involved, and pay tribute to these guys," said Terry Byron, an administrative assistant at Dignity Memorial Providers of Tucson, and one of many who participate. "The sacrifice of human life is something that needs to be remembered. It's such a sacred thing that you have to pay tribute to those who are willing to sacrifice it.
"Spiritually, it helps me feel like I'm doing something to pay them back for their willingness to sacrifice for my freedoms," Byron said.
Don LaVetter, commandant of the Marine Corps League, is a Tucsonan and Vietnam War veteran. He and others associated with the Marine Corps League were at the Marana airport last Saturday, cleaning and prepping the memorials.
"We wanted to make sure the site was clean so when the family members came out, it would be appropriately set," LaVetter said. "The airport really does a fabulous job keeping up" the roadside memorial. "Sometimes, the crash site gets neglected. It's really special to get to go out to the actual crash site."
A piece of red granite has the names of each man etched upon it. A colored gravel pattern is surrounded by a concrete border to keep the stone in place. Because of its location, "it has to be flat," LaVetter, said.
This year, a granite bench is being purchased for the roadside memorial. "We're really super excited about unveiling that bench," said Byron. It has a vase built into it, for the placement of flowers. It will be a place to sit and contemplate.
LaVetter became associated with the Osprey remembrance at the fifth anniversary commemoration in 2005. "We had a huge service, maybe 300 bikers, several family members, people from the community," LaVetter said. "Marana is such a dedicated town, not only the civic leaders, but the entire community.
"People remember," he continued. "That was a horrific scene. A lot of people remember that. Some people pull a tear, they didn't know anyone, but they remember that terrible accident."
The V-22 is a tilt rotor airplane with two huge propellers at the very end. They rotate up, allowing the aircraft to hover. On that night, something – several things – went wrong aboard what was then a relatively new military aircraft. Like "links in a chain," according to the American Forces Press Service, a tailwind, a deviation from the flight plan, a rotor stall known as "vortex ring state" and other decisions contributed to the crash. All 19 died immediately.
"Next time you hear thunder in the sky, know it's 19 proud Marines yelling 'Semper Fi,'" reads the Marine Corps League invitation to Saturday's service. Semper Fi. Always faithful.
Michele Fentriss lost her son, Lance Cpl. Seth Jones, in the Osprey crash. He was 18, the youngest person on the plane.
Seth was "a wonderful kid," Michele said. "Such a comedian. He did funny little things. That's what we remember about him. When he was your friend, he was your friend forever."
She's come to the memorial service from her home in Portland, Ore., almost every year, as has Donna Harter of Florence, S.C. She and her husband Ron are "proud parents" of Cpl. Kelly S. Keith, 22.
"There was a year in there I didn't make it, and a year Donna didn't make it," Fentriss said.
The family of Pfc. George Santos came for a while, but has not lately.
Michele is coming again this weekend. She and Donna are "making sure things just flow, I guess, I don't know."
Michele spoke at the ceremony a year ago. She told the story of how, after Kelly and Seth died, Donna sent an emblem for the back of Michele's car that read "In loving memory of Lance Cpl. Seth Jones."
One day, Michele saw a couple reading the memorial. "My nephew died in Iraq as well," the woman said. Michele knew that. She had gone to the young man's funeral; her family tries to attend "as many Marine Corps funerals as we can."
Michele told the woman Seth didn't die in Iraq; he was killed in the Osprey crash, on U.S. soil. The woman's response took her aback.
"She made me feel his death wasn't as significant as if he'd been killed at war," Michele said.
Isn't death in service to country just that, always noble, regardless of where or how it happens? "People don't look at it like that," Fentriss said. "That's more obvious to me as time goes on." When an American in the military loses life in war, "my heart goes out to their family, believe me, to lose your child. But to make others feel that your child's sacrifice is not as meaningful as those who are killed in war …."
For her, now, the Marana tribute "memorializes not just the boys that died in Marana, but every Marine who wasn't killed in a war, and gets nothing."
Among those who will be in attendance are Connie Gruber and her daughter Brooke, traveling from Camp Lejeune and Jacksonville, N.C.
Connie's husband, Major Brooks Gruber, was the co-pilot of the Osprey 10 years ago. He was 34, an honor graduate from Virginia Military Institute, a dedicated, respected Marine, a skillful pilot and talented athlete, funny, friendly, a man who lived life to its fullest.
Brooks was also the new father of an 8-month-old daughter, named Brooke in his honor.
Brooke was too young to attend the ceremony that first year. She's coming this year, along with Connie, Brooks' brother Brian and his wife Alison from Orlando.
"We are extremely grateful for this memorial from the good people of Marana," Connie writes.
It's not easy, coming back. It never is.
"It's been 10 years," Michele Fentriss said. "As time goes on, people say time heals all, and in some ways, that's true, life goes along." She has two other children, a grandchild, another on the way. Seth's girlfriend and her family are a part of their lives, too. But a full family life, minus Seth, tears at his mother.
"The thought of him not being here and being part of that is taking a toll on my soul," she said. "I don't know if I'll keep going."
Yet she is "just drawn" to Marana.
"When I go there, we go to the hotel, we have dinner, but when we actually go to the memorial, get closer, my heart starts pounding, and I get all weepy, because this is where my son lost his life," she said. "I was there when he was born, and I want to be at the space where he stepped off this earth.
"This is sacred ground to me, it's where our children lost their lives, and in a pretty horrific way."
She makes special mention of the late Rich Harasyn, who was "very involved" in the memorial before he died. "He kept in touch with the two of us on a regular basis. Rich was the person that got it going, and helped to make it the wonderful thing it is."
On the phone, Michele only gets weepy once, when she starts talking about the people in greater Tucson who make sure the Osprey memorial service occurs every year.
"It means more to us …. We could never, ever tell them, there's nothing we could say to thank them for what they do, to make sure they are not forgotten. I feel they take such good care of them, we could not ask for more from anybody.
"I love those people. Let them know how much we love them."
The 19 Marines
3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division
Sgt. Jose Alvarez, 28
Pfc. Gabriel C. Clevenger, 21
Pfc. Alfred Corona, 23
Lance Cpl. Jason T. Duke, 28
Lance Cpl. Jesus Gonzalez Sanchez, 27
Lance Cpl. Seth G. Jones, 18
2nd Lt. Clayton J. Kennedy, 24
Lance Cpl. Jorge A. Morin, 21
Cpl. Adam C. Neely, 22
Pfc. Kenneth O. Paddio, 23
Pfc. George P. Santos, 24
Lance Cpl. Keoki P. Santos, 24
Cpl. Can Soler, 21
Pvt. Adam L. Tatro, 19
Marine Wing Communications Squadron 38, Marine Air Control Group 38
Cpl. Eric J. Martinez, 21
Marine Helicopter Squadron 1
Maj. John A. Brow, 39
Maj. Brooks S. Gruber, 34
Cpl. Kelly S. Keith, 22
Marine Tilt-Rotor Training
Staff Sgt. William B. Nelson, 30
The MV-22 Osprey Tilt rotor aircraft was conducting a training mission in support of Operational Evaluation (OPEVAL) when it went down at the Marana Regional Airport on April 8, 2000.
During the mission, the crew and Marines conducted non-combatant evacuation operations exercises as part of the Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course, with Marines embarking and disembarking the aircraft.
The mission was conducted at night utilizing night vision goggles and forward-looking infrared radar to enhance night operational capability.
This aircraft was part of the Multiservice Operational Test Team, based at Patuxent River, Md., but was temporarily attached to Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma