Overcoming tragedy: A small town reaches out

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Bill Kale
  • 52nd Civil Engineer Squadron Commander
On May 26, 2011, our squadron received the horrible news about Staff Sgt. Joe Hamski, 52nd Civil Engineer Squadron explosive ordinance disposal craftsman, who recently made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. Joe's death was especially tough for us because his wife Christina is also an Air Force staff sergeant and superstar member of our squadron serving as an engineering assistant. After completing all the family death notifications, it's been absolutely amazing how many acts of kindness we've received to help us get through our mourning of Joe's loss. We travelled thousands of miles from Germany to pay our respects to Joe and his family, but we were absolutely overwhelmed by the support and appreciation we received from the great community of Ottumwa, Iowa.

The first and most significant act of kindness we received on multiple occasions was from Joe's mother, Mary Ellen Winston. Her great strength and courage helped us and countless others carry out our duties over the past week. On multiple occasions, she stated Joe and Christina's Air Force family helped her throughout this ordeal, when in reality it was Mary Ellen encouraging and comforting the Air Force family throughout this period of mourning. Despite her heartbreaking loss, she became an inspiration to my squadron and I.

We arrived in Ottumwa, Iowa, on Thursday night and enjoyed a peaceful meal at a small restaurant, then a restful evening at our hotel. Our great impression of Ottumwa began when we were eating breakfast and saw the front page article in the Ottumwa Courier about Joe. Most of our Airmen killed in action are usually lucky if they get a small blurb written about them on page 10, but seeing Joe's picture on the front page truly showed us Ottumwa respects our service to our country. We also were very appreciative to find out Iowa Governor Terry Branstad ordered American flags at half-staff and would present an American flag that was flown over the state capitol to Joe's family. While these small acts of respect don't take much effort or time, they are much appreciated and mean a lot to us.

When we arrived at Reece Funeral Home to pay our respects to Joe on Friday, we were absolutely awed when we saw about 30 or 40 large American flags held by members of the Patriot Guard. I shook every one of their hands and did my best to personally thank them, but had a lot of difficulty speaking and saying what I truly meant because my emotions got the best of me. I can't thank these folks enough for taking the time to honor Sergeant Hamski and making the funeral home a patriotic location.

After spending several hours at Reece Funeral Home and talking with hundreds of people about Sergeant Hamski's impressive Air Force career, our team needed a breather, and spending the evening at the Bridge City Bowl was the perfect solution. The management and staff were extremely kind and accommodating. We appreciated the huge risk they took because they probably never realized how bad explosive ordnance disposal technicians are at bowling after drinking a few beers. Bridge City Bowl allowed us to blow off some much needed steam so we could be at our best to honor Joe and his family the next day at his funeral.

Saturday morning started off like no other morning in my entire career. I've been in the Air Force for almost sixteen years, commanded two squadrons, led thousands of Airmen, spent more than three years in combat zones all over the world, worked on Capitol Hill and the Pentagon, and I have never seen anything like this before. We were absolutely blown away by the number of folks lining the streets with American flags on the way to the St. Mary of the Visitation Church. The church was absolutely beautiful and jam packed with Joe's family, friends and comrades. Father Bernie Weir consoled and inspired us with his kind words about how most Americans truly appreciate our military service along with our dedication, devotion and loyalty to our country. Father Weir was absolutely correct because we could feel the love from the community both inside and outside of the Church.

After the Mass of Resurrection for Sergeant Hamski, the procession to the Ottumwa cemetery is something I will never forget. The Ottumwa police and fire departments did a wonderful job leading the procession. We noticed the thorough job the Ottumwa police did protecting the procession route and we were able to drive to the cemetery with ease and dignity. We also noticed how the fire department used their ladder truck to hang a huge American flag over street. We were absolutely honored to drive underneath it and appreciated the efforts they made to make the streets more patriotic. The Patriot Guard once again awed us with numerous flags around the church and cemetery, along with 144 motorcycles and 192 riders helping escort Sergeant Hamski to his final resting place.They truly made us feel special and provided much needed patriotism for this event. But what really took my breath away were the hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens lining the streets holding American flags with their hands on their heart while we drove by. I wish I could have walked to the cemetery so I could have hugged each and every one of them to express my gratitude. I also have to thank my brothers and sisters from Offutt Air Force Base for providing a world class honor guard - they were true professionals and provided the utmost respect to Sergeant Hamski.

Finally, after the funeral, our team once again needed some time alone to relax. Since we are stationed in Germany, we wanted to enjoy a good old-fashioned American dinner, so we went to Bogie's Steak House and were completely overwhelmed by their kindness. The owners, Kevin and Toni Walter, truly made our last evening in Iowa very special. We are definitely going to need some extra physical fitness training so our uniforms will fit properly after eating such a great meal!

The past week has been an emotional roller coaster for the 52nd CES and Explosive Ordnance Flight. While losing Sergeant Hamski is an absolute tragedy, I am going to look back at this experience as one of the most positive ones of my Air Force career because of all the kind things folks have done for the Hamskis and our squadron. I cannot say it enough - we were absolutely overwhelmed by the citizens of Ottumwa for all their support and appreciation. They definitely eased our pain and truly honored our brother, Staff Sgt. Joseph Hamski.