Dusk shrouded the clear, blue Nevada sky as the sun slowly disappeared over the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
In front of the Gold Star Families Memorial on the grounds of the Nevada State Veterans Home in Sparks stood a couple, both staring straight ahead. Having never met them before at a function involving Gold Star families, I walked over to introduce myself.
The next few minutes seemed like a full circle to a previous story I wrote in 2005 and then a decade later. Steve and Sandy Stewart of Reno attended the annual remembrance because of their son, who died in a combat zone 18 years ago.
Members of the Patriot Guard Riders carry the U.S. flag before a ceremony begins on Gold Star Mother’s and Family Day, Sept. 24.
Steve Ranson / Nevada News Group
“Who was your son?” I asked.
“You may not know him, but his name was Patrick,” Steve Stewart replied.
I responded and asked if his name is Patrick Stewart, which they confirmed. Sometimes, life works in unusual ways because I reported on Sgt. Stewart’s military funeral at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park in Reno on a crisp autumn morning in October, a month after he and five other soldiers were killed when insurgents shot down their Chinook helicopter over Afghanistan on Sept. 25, 2005.
Another Nevadan, Chief Warrant Officer 3 John Flynn of Reno, was piloting the helicopter with Warrant Officer 1 Adrian Stump. Both Flynn and Stewart were assigned to Company D, 113th Aviation, based at Stead. The unit was activated in January 2005 and deployed to Afghanistan in March.
Gold Star families bow their head during Gold Star Mother’s and Family Day on Sept. 24 at Nevada’s Gold Star Families Memorial.
Steve Ranson / Nevada News Group
The Stewarts said they have kept all the articles written about Mustang 22 and their son.
The Gold Star Mother’s and Family Day falls on the last Sunday of September, which was on Sept. 24, the day before tragedy struck the crew of Mustang 22 almost two decades ago. Three CH-47 Chinook, two Blackhawk and two Comanche helicopters lifted off from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. A Taliban-fired rocket-propelled grenade ripped into Mustang 22 on Sept. 25, 2005, pinning the helicopter and five guardsmen to their deaths near the Daychopabn district in southern Zabul.
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Dan Walters, who flew helicopters in 2005 along with Mustang 22 and then again in 2012 when I embedded as a journalist with the 189th at Forward Operating Base Shank, said at a 2015 memorial dedication that he remembers their loss through the playing of “Taps.”
“It’s tough. When I hear ‘Taps,’ I hear of Afghanistan. They got played a lot,” Walters said of the numerous ramp ceremonies conducted at the Kandahar Air Field, a major staging area in the southern part of the country.
Kathy Yorston, who has volunteered countless number of hours for Honor Flight Nevada, lost a son in war. Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremy Long, graduated from Spanish Spring High School in 2005. He was involved with sports and competed against teams from Reno, Carson City, Elko and Fallon in football, wrestling and track. Those who knew him called the Nevada native “the nicest guy in the world.”
After graduation, he enlisted in the Marines and after his initial raining, he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Twentynine Palms, California. Long left for Iraq, but in February 2006, he was killed while conducting combat operations.
In his own words, Jeremy described himself as a happy-go lucky type of guy.
“I love hanging out with family and I try to make everyone around me laugh a lot. I love to watch movies that make me laugh,” he wrote.
Yorston said she attends every event conducted at the Gold Star Families Memorial and supports Honor Flight Nevada.
“It’s really meaningful to remember our kids and loved ones who have passed,” she said, her voice growing softer.
Her eyes looked away. I could tell she was pained to talk about her son and her feelings.
Steve Ward, a Yerington businessman and Honor Flight Nevada board member, accompanies veterans to Washington, D.C., several times a year. One of the stops is at Arlington National Cemetery for veterans to disembark the bus and pay their respects to those who died in service to their country and for Ward to visit his son.
“As a Gold Star father, this is a special day. It’s nice for somebody to get us together,” he said, turning his attention to Yorston. “She has been very supportive of us. She was on a Gold Star flight in December.”
On one of the Honor Flights, I introduced readers to 19-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Eric L. Ward, who died in combat in Afghanistan on Feb. 21, 2010. Ward’s unit was on what the Department of Defense called hostile action in the southern part of the country. Ward, a fifth generation Marine, was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom as a machine gunner with 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
During Labor Day weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library north of Los Angeles in picturesque Simi Valley. The 40th president knew the horrors of war and the sacrifices America’s sons and daughters made during the last century whether they were standing in the trenches in Europe during World War I, storming the shores of Normandy on D-Day, landing at Incheon during the Korean War or rooting out the Viet Cong in Vietnam.
If he were alive, Reagan would’ve also praised the heroism of those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“We owe them a debt we can never repay,” President Reagan said of those who gave their lives for their county. “All we can do is remember them and what they did and why they had to be brave for us.”
Steve Ranson, editor emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News, writes military and veterans articles and volunteers with Honor Flight Nevada. During his military and civilian careers, he has written hundreds of articles on veterans and the military.