By DAN WHITTLE
Twenty years (1995-2015) have passed since the genocide of more than 8,000 boys and men at Srebrenica, Bosnia.
A United Nations' promise of protection failed in 1995 when Serb officers and soldiers were allowed to march into the village to gather up young innocent boys and elderly males of Srebrenica ... a slaughter not seen of such magnitude in Europe since Hitler's holocaust of Jews.
By the time the Srebrenica atrocity had happened, Tennessee Air National Guard citizen soldiers of the Nashville-based 118th Airlift Wing had already flown more than 500 relief missions, dropping tons of life-sustaining meds, water and food to starving Bosnian war refugees.
"They were part of 'Operation Provide Promise' that eventually surpassed the length of time the historic 'Berlin Air Lift' had lasted after the end of World War II," confirmed retired Air Guard Lt. Col. Hooper Penuel of Lascassas. "Tennessee flight crews, over a period of three months, flew more than 500 sorties in and out of Bosnia."
Tennessee Guard Plane 1055 was hit in 1993 by enemy ground fire during a daytime sortie in and out of Sarajevo Airport.
"Lt. Jim 'Hoot' Gibson (of Mt. Juliet) was in the co-pilots' seat that day when we first noticed white puffs of smoke coming up toward us from the trees below," Public Information Officer Penuel accounted. "It was a hot zone, so the pilots kept the engines running for fast take-off when our C-130 was hit by enemy fire as we dropped food, water and medicine pallets out back of the aircraft."
When Plane 1055 returned to Rhein-Mein Air Force Base in Frankfurt, Germany, ground personnel painted two small "Purple Hearts" on the aircraft's fuselage where Serb sniper fire had hit.
One bullet came close to the head of Sgt. Bennie Adkins, of Smyrna.
I made a tidbit of Tennessee military history that day, when Gibson and Penuel invited me to come up to the cockpit. When entering the Sarajevo war zone, technically I became the 'first' Tennessee journalist in history to enter an active war zone with the Tennessee Air National Guard. I have that plaque to show my grandkids today.
The Air Guard crews' proficiency and bravery changed my perception of these citizen soldiers ... and increased my appreciation of sacrifices of their families.
Maj. Randy Jones, flight navigator of Murfreesboro, was destined to be promoted to colonel and served as last commander of the fabled 118th Airlift Wing upon his return to Barry Field in Nashville. The 118th flying unit has since been decommissioned.
In 1993, Sgt. "Big" Don Walker, of La Vergne, and Sgt. Gary Crawford, of Smyrna, served as load masters on a flight out of Frankfurt, German, en route to a dangerous night drop of food, meds and water to distressed war refugees in small village Srebrenica, before it became known worldwide for the genocide in 1995.
I recall breath-taking beauty as sun beams bounced off the planes' propellers while the sun sparkled like diamonds off the snow-covered Alpine Mountains as a fleet of 12 C-130s from multiple nations hurtled toward Srebrenica before daylight turned into darkness for the eventual night drop of relief supplies.
Some jocularity helped relieve the tension during high-stress moments, including when media types and citizens soldiers voted Sgt. Bill "War Baby" Burton, of Mt. Juliet, with having the best nickname of all the flight crews.
Plus, multiple load masters permitted me to attach T-shirts from Toot's Restaurants and former U.S. Congressman Bart Gordon's staffs in Washington and Murfreesboro to pallets before they went out the back of the plane. A historic photo of this hangs in Smyrna's Toot's Restaurant.
Fast forward to 1996 when I had an assignment to Stone Mountain, Ga., where a female server with an unusual accent came to my table.
She acknowledged being from "Srebrenica, Bosnia."
It seemed to surprise her when I shared I was a newspaperman who had accompanied a humanitarian military air drop over her home town back in 1993.
It took my breath when she shared the following: "My family got some of the medication when the parachutes and pallets came raining down on our town that night. The next morning, Father went to the only town fountain still working, to get water for my sick mother to take some of the medication. He was at the fountain when a Serb sniper shot him between the eyes."
She credited a Baptist church relief organization with helping her get to America. It drove the point home how small our world has become and how brave our states' citizen soldiers while serving here at home and around the globe.