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Hanscom NCO gives family last contact with fallen soldier

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Geoff Buteau
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
On Jan. 20, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed northeast of Baghdad. Twelve Soldiers died.

Three weeks earlier -- between the Christmas and New Year's holidays -- Hanscom was scarce with people. But because Master Sgt. Donald Gonsalves, Hanscom's family readiness coordinator, decided to make a half-day trip to his office to take care of a few things, a Stafford, Va., family was able to make final contact with their deployed soldier, who would die in the helicopter crash.

Col. Paul Kelly, 45, was in Baghdad commanding the Army National Guard liaison team that coordinates site visits and monitors Guard Soldiers' needs. His wife, Maria, and two sons, Paul David and J.J., were visiting Colonel Kelly's brother, John Kelly, who lives in Hopkinton, Mass. The family requested the use of Hanscom's video teleconferencing, or VTC, through the Airman and Family Readiness Center to make contact with Colonel Kelly. VTCs are a morale service for families of deployed service members.

After receiving the voice mail request from Mrs. Kelly on Dec. 27 and subsequently talking with her, Sergeant Gonsalves began to call around the base to find an open VTC room. Making the request difficult was that there was minimal manning on Hanscom due to the holidays. Adding to the challenge was that only a secure-signal VTC would suffice, since Camp Victory in Baghdad only had secure-signal capability, Sergeant Gonsalves said.

Despite those obstacles, Sergeant Gonsalves was able to contact Everett Langley, a Lockheed-Martin Corporation information technician, who only had access to non-secure VTC equipment but was able to refer the sergeant to Walter Santos, 66th Mission Support Group multi-media manager. Mr. Santos set up Sergeant Gonsalves with Lance Beebe, a graphic illustrator and a VTC technician at the multi-media center.

With all the right people ready to help, Sergeant Gonsalves set up a secure-line conference for 3:30 p.m. local time on Dec. 29, making it 11:30 p.m. Baghdad time the same day. He said the Kelly family was very appreciative of the 30 minutes they spent talking with Colonel Kelly. The colonel had left his family in Virginia in September 2006. The VTC was originally planned to help the family get through the holidays without him and re-charge them for the final stretch before his return in early March, Sergeant Gonsalves said from his talks with the family.

After the VTC, Colonel Kelly contacted Sergeant Gonsalves to thank him.

"He told me 'it meant the world to us,'" Sergeant Gonsalves said. "I told him, 'Sir, that's what we do.'"

The VTC took on a greater significance when news broke of the fatal helicopter crash. Officials believe the UH-60 Black Hawk was struck by hostile fire. The accident is still under investigation.

"When I heard the news, it was tough," Sergeant Gonsalves said.

When asked if he was able to take anything positive away from the fact that he provided the last contact between the colonel and his family, Sergeant Gonsalves said, "I feel kind of good, but it still feels like I was hit in the gut with a punch."

Before Mrs. Kelly received the news of the crash, she sent a card to Sergeant Gonsalves. The card still sits on his desk, thanking him for his efforts that brought her family closer to Colonel Kelly:

"Dear Sergeant Gonsalves, Thank you very much for making this holiday special. Thanks for everything, God bless and have a prosperous New Year. Sincerely yours, Col. Paul Kelly and Family."