Before students of Class 18-G received their diplomas at the latest Airman Leadership School graduation, five members of the audience were called to the stage: a blonde woman wearing a set of dog tags and a mother trailed by three children. After several moments, these Gold Star family members were met with a standing ovation from the audience.
This moment was part of the Chief Master Sgt. Bud Andrews Airman Leadership School’s new legacy project, which aimed to recognize veterans, fallen service members and their families.
Class 18-G chose to honor Maj. Phyllis Pelky and Master Sgt. Gregory Kuhse, who were killed in a 2015 helicopter crash in Afghanistan, by recognizing their families during the ceremony. Pelky’s sister, Cathy Berlin-Obregon, and Kuhse’s wife, Torri, and children were the five honored at the graduation.
“It lets them know that they are not forgotten,” said Tech. Sgt. Charles Hord, 375th Force Support Squadron Chief Master Sgt. Bud Andrews ALS commandant, and founder of the legacy project. “Leadership-wise, you want to be able to communicate with your Airmen the importance of the sacrifices others have made before you.”
Senior Airman Donovan White and Senior Airman Logan Trackwell volunteered to coordinate the event, which fell on the three-year anniversary of the crash.
“It gave me a deeper sense of appreciation for what others have gone through, what they’ve lost, and the impact of that missing part in the families’ lives,” said Trackwell.
White said he hoped the project showed the Obregon and Kuhse that family they are still appreciated and not forgotten.
“It’s about just letting them know, ‘Hey, we still care about your family members. Their sacrifice is still resonating with us,’” said White. “As we’re becoming leaders and going into the supervisory position, it’s important for us to reflect back on past leaders.”
Torri said she felt the class did a good job of honoring her late husband.
“I just don’t want him to be forgotten,” said Torri, explaining how she wishes he’s remembered as a “fun, all-around caring, loving guy” rather than “just a name on a page and some story about the helicopter crash.”
One of the main goals of the legacy program is to bring veterans and fallen Airmen’s names into the spotlight and remind others that there are entire stories attached to them; stories that must be remembered as Airmen grow into leaders.
“When Airmen read [about fallen service members], especially in the Professional Development Guides [while] studying for promotions, you don’t think about the real-life story or the families,” said Kuhse. “You just learn it, so I think seeing Greg’s children and me, maybe it makes it real and helps people appreciate what they have: their families, their life, their careers. It can all be just gone in an instant, and life is fleeting.”