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Honoring the three airmen: Hill base mourns loss in its family
HILL AIR FORCE BASE - The two friends thought they would miss each other by only a few days. Danielle Ruiz, on her way to Afghanistan, was scheduled to leave Utah just before Elizabeth Loncki came home from Iraq.
Ruiz tapped out an e-mail to explain why she wouldn't be there when Loncki returned.
"She never did write me back," Ruiz said Friday. "I wish I had told her more."
Hundreds of people packed a stark aircraft hangar at Hill Air Force Base to mourn three airmen who knew, all too well, never to leave anything unsaid.
Loncki and fellow bomb disposal technicians Timothy Weiner and Daniel Miller were killed Sunday south of Baghdad when a bomb they had been dispatched to destroy exploded. They were the first Iraq war fatalities for Hill, Utah's largest military facility.
Loncki will be buried in Delaware, Miller in Illinois and Weiner in Colorado.
But the names of each will be inscribed, side by side, in the national explosive ordnance disposal memorial at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
And at Hill, they will be remembered not only as individual airmen but as part of a family.
That family was vitally important to Weiner, recalled Michael Frech, who had known the eldest of the three slain airmen for more than 12 years.
Frech said Weiner never forgot his obligations to his own family, either. Recalling a time when Weiner's wife was having medical problems, Frech said his friend worked tirelessly to care for her.
"I've never seen a man work so hard to balance family and service," Frech told Deborah Weiner, who sat beside her son John, 15, before a row of inverted rifles and empty desert combat boots. "And I've never seen it done better."
Mark Shaw remembered Miller as a man who loved life, nature and a good laugh - and who was most devoted to his friends.
Shaw said Miller was not discouraged by difficulty, recalling the first time Miller went skiing by way of example.
"The hardest part was getting him up long enough on the skis to get him moving," Shaw said. "If it was me, I would have given up much easier."
But, fellow airmen said, their three fallen comrades were not the giving-up type.
Day after day in Iraq they were dispatched to destroy bombs meant to kill American service members, each one taking a turn in the bulky kevlar suit for what Frech described as "the loneliest walk" toward an unexploded bomb.
Details of the incident that claimed their lives remain vague, but the blast that day - from a car laden with explosives - was many times more powerful than what the bomb suit could sustain, said Harry Briesmaster, who commands the civil engineering group at Hill, of which the explosives team was a part.
Briesmaster said the slain airmen responded to multiple explosive devices each day, seeking "initial success or total failure" with "nerves of steel."
For that work, each has posthumously been awarded the Bronze Star, Air Force officials said.
The service was capped with three resounding explosions - the bomb disposal community's equivalent of a 21-gun salute. The blasts shook the hangar, sending small tufts of dust from the rafters.
They were controlled blasts, but nonetheless jarring.
Why would anyone want to work with the real thing?
During her remembrance, Ruiz recalled Loncki's answer to that question.
"We're too good for anything else," the 23-year-old airman would say.