Ratchet 33 aircrew remembered during memorial ceremony

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla -- More than 900 Air Commandos, fellow special operations service members, civilians and families gathered to remember four fallen Airmen during a ceremony at the air park, here, Feb. 16.

Capt. Ryan P. Hall from the 319th Special Operations Squadron, Capt. Nicholas S. Whitlock and 1st Lt. Justin J. Wilkens from the 34th Special Operations Squadron and Senior Airman Julian S. Scholten from the 25th Intelligence Squadron died Feb. 18, 2012, when their U-28A was involved in an accident near Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, located in the Horn of Africa.

“We’re assembled today to remember our fallen Air Commandos who were courageous men who gave all in defense of America against violent extremists,” said Maj. Gen. Eugene Haase, the vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. “The security of this nation is shouldered by brave men and women. Brave Americans like Ryan, Nick, Justin and Julian who made the ultimate sacrifice.”

At approximately 7:18 p.m. local time, a U-28A aircraft, tail number 07-0736, crashed five nautical miles southwest of Ambouli International Airport, Djibouti. This aircraft was assigned to the 34th SOS, 1st Special Operations Wing, and deployed to the 34th Expeditionary SOS, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.

“Five years ago we made a promise that we would never forget Ryan, Nick, Justin and Julian’s legacies,” said Lt. Col. Erick Turasz, the commander of the 34th SOS. “We will unveil a memorial in their memory that will forever be a vital piece of these hallowed grounds, and a sanctuary for all of us who loved them and for those who will come after them to visit.”

In October 2002, U.S. special operations forces began operations to detect and disrupt violent extremist organizations in the Horn of Africa in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. Beginning in 2009, Air Commandos flying the U-28A effectively disrupted extremist cells and thwarted trans-national terrorism in the region.

“Threat of aggression against America is ever present, and we are fortunate to have had Ryan, Nick, Justin and Julian on our side taking it to the enemy,” Haase said. “They are the true source of America’s strength. The individual willing to sacrifice all for his nation.”

The memorial’s location was handpicked and placed among other small aircraft memorialized in the air park.

“U-28 quiet professionals have been strengthened by Ryan, Nick, Justin and Julian’s courage,” Turasz said. “All displayed incredible levels of valor daily, applying crushing violence and force on America’s enemies. It is the memory of Ratchet 33 that reminds us of the ideals for which they lived and died.”

During the ceremony, the commanders of the 34th SOS, 25th IS and the acting commander of the 319th SOS unveiled the plaque dedicated to the crew of Ratchet 33.

“[U-28A] credibility was built on the shoulders of Air Commandos like those in the crowd today and the crew of Ratchet 33 who ensured that a U-28 was airborne every day in support of special operations somewhere around the world starting in June 2006 until our tragic loss on Feb. 18, 2012,” Turasz said. “Ryan, Nick, Justin and Julian knew the risk like all of us do today, and they did not shy away from the dangers. We are committed to continuing Ratchet 33’s legacy and honoring the great sacrifices of families and friends. You are forever part of the U-28 community and the greater AFSOC community.”