Shared tears and triumphs define Memorial Day for 920th Rescue Wing commander

  • Published
  • By Maj. Cathleen Snow
A year-and-a-half into commanding the 920th Rescue Wing, Col. Kurt A. Matthews is getting ready to attend his fourth burial.

Tragedies of the past year brought Memorial Day into perspective for 2,000 Airmen that serve with the 920th Rescue Wing, along with Matthews, who has seen the scars left by Vietnam in his own family.

The harsh reality of the pararescue motto; “these things we do, that others may live,” serves as a Memorial Day reminder for the Air Force Reserve wing that is uniquely capable of performing amazing feats to save lives.

The 920th RQW’s annual flight plan portfolio logged two 1,000-mile roundtrips over the vast sea to save two men whose sailboat caught fire and sunk, and a cruise ship passenger who became gravely ill—a trek to Texas to evacuate 235 citizens displaced by the ravages of Hurricane Harvey—and several stints up Oregonian mountains to pick up hikers trapped by weather events—all the while surpassing the intense scrutiny of an inspection and sending multiple personnel out the door to combat.

Checking off these seemingly immortal feats led to multiple accolades and awards for rescue warriors to celebrate, like the Power and Vigilance Award; the Jolly Green Association Rescue of the Year Award and the Medal of Honor on Ribbon for Rescue Missions at Sea in Gold, but tears brought on by tragic news of loss, dignified transfers, memorials and burials of fellow Airmen, were shed along the way.

The rescue community received a major blow when 7 Airmen were killed aboard Jolly 51, an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter that crashed in Iraq March 15, 2018. Among those killed were pararescuemen, Master Sgt. Bill Posch, 36, and Staff Sgt. Carl Enis, 31, two men assigned to the 308th Rescue Squadron within the 920th RQW. Currently, the majority of the 100-person squadron of elite special operators remain deployed throughout the Middle East.

Another loss preceded when a recently retired 920th Operations Group commander and close friend to many, Col. Chris Hannon, was killed after being struck by a car while bicycling. After years of flying dangerous combat rescue missions in helicopters throughout Afghanistan, it was hard to comprehend how a highly decorated athletic 57-year-old veteran and avid bicyclist could be here one day, and gone the next.

Five months earlier the grips of post-traumatic stress led Master Sgt. Pete Pavenski, an aerial gunner with the 301st Rescue Squadron, to take his own life.

“Nothing can fill the void left by the loss of these great men,” said Matthews, a third generation pilot whose father, George, joined the Air Force in 1955, as the Vietnam War was revving up. George took his dad’s commercial flying career to a new level with his commitment to serve his country--paving the way for Kurt.

At an early age, George instilled in Kurt the importance of honoring the service members who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice. “We as a family have always honored our fallen. It’s part of a family tradition,” said George Matthews.

Twelve years into George Matthews’ Air Force career, he chalked up a number of different assignments, but still none in combat. However, in 1964 George’s little brother, Aitken Matthews, 19, joined the Marines and was shipped off to Vietnam two years later. At the time, George was flying C-121s out of McClellan Air Force Base, California. Then, he received tragic news that his little brother was killed in combat. The Marines asked George if he would escort Kenny’s body home for his dignified transfer. George readily accepted.

“It was the most difficult and saddest mission I ever had to do,” said George with tears welling up in his eyes, but he was honored to do it.

He wore his Class-A service dress and showed up in San Francisco to take his little brother back to their hometown, Miami. Upon his return, the indelible image of their mother hugging Kenny’s casket is seared into George’s memory. Kenny was laid to rest at Miami’s Memorial Gardens Cemetery with full military honors and George had another difficult job—to present his parents with his little brother’s flag.

George went back to work flying missions out of California, but received orders to Vietnam three months later. He was soon flying fighter-bomber missions in the A-26 Invader over Southeast Asia. It was his job to stop war supplies being transported along the Ho Chi Minh trail. On the one year anniversary of his brother’s death, February 14, 1967, George ensured the enemy felt the full effect of his lost brother.

“I flew with a special purpose that day,” George said.

During his 11 months in Vietnam, four aircraft from his unit were shot down losing both of the two crew members (pilot and copilot) aboard each aircraft and he earned the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroic actions.

George redeployed back home in October 1967. Nine months later his wife Carolyn gave birth to their second child, Kurt, on Sept. 11, 1968. They have three children in all. He went on to retire after 20 years of service.

“I’ve participated in Memorial Day ceremonies, but it gets harder to go,” said George. “I always honor those men and women who will never come back. We should be grateful they lived. We honor them for what they did for us, rather than mourn them.”

When Master Sergeant Posch’s remains were brought back to Patrick Air Force Base, “It was really tough,” said George. “I saluted the casket as it went by,” he said as the memories of his brother flooded back. “The older I get, the closer the emotions come to the surface,” George said. “My brother is right there at the top.”

“This Memorial Day means a lot, not only for the nation, but for my family and our rescue family,” said Matthews. “I was glad I got to spend it with my father, and with the 308th Rescue Squadron Commander, (Lt. Col.) Tim Hanks.” Colonel Matthews was invited to speak at the Brevard Veterans Center in Merritt Island, Florida, where he presented an honorary flag to the 308th RQS and officially added Master Sgt. William Posch’s and Staff Sgt. Carl Enis’ names to the center’s memorial.

“Today is a day in which we should remember the joy, the laughter, the magnanimous life of Bill and Carl and the entire crew of Jolly 51. Today is another day in our healing process for family, friends, teammates and the community. It is a day in which we recognize the pain is real and still raw, but it is also the day we celebrate the lives of our fallen heroes,” said Lt. Col. Tim Hanks, 308th RQS commander, during memorial services for the 920th’s two fallen rescue heroes.