The second commemoration marking the tragic death of 16 servicemen who lost their lives in a horrific midair explosion on July 10, 2017 was hosted on the campus of Mississippi Valley State University on Saturday and was once again attended by the families of many of the deceased soldiers.
One of the families present was that of Staff Sgt. William J. (Billy) Kundrat. His widow Ashley and children Ethan and Aleah along with his mother Lynda and his father, retired Sergeant Major Joseph Kundrat, had a front row seat for Saturday’s ceremony that was moved indoors due to the threat of rain.
Afterwards, Lynda expressed, “I want to say thank you, because I will tell you, we have felt the hospitality of Mississippi. We have been embraced with love and honored with the grace of just being in this fine state with these fine people.”
She dubbed it an honor and described her feelings with regard to the outpouring of love. “It means so much to us because we loved Billy so much and to know that he's not forgotten and he still lives in the hearts of people in the Delta region.”
Billy’s widow, Ashley said, “I wouldn't have wanted this to happen anywhere at all, but if it was going to happen anywhere, I think this is probably the best place it could have happened. Everybody has been wonderful; we have just been showered with love.”
Former Mississippi State Auditor and Director of Mississippi Veteran Affairs Board Stacey Pickering presided over the ceremony and Congressman Trent Kelly, Mississippi, gave the keynote address.
During his remarks, Kelly referenced a quote by Gen. George Patton and said, “I thank God that such men, as on this plane, live to protect this nation.” He referred to the soldiers as heroes. And acknowledging the families, he said, “Mississippi will love you into the next century and for as long as we have to, you’re always welcome in our Mississippi.”
Colonel Mike Quirk, Marine Aircraft Group 49 Deputy Group Commander, delivered closing remarks wherein he applauded Moorhead resident Brenda Grubb and others for their dedication and countless hours of work in putting the tributes together and hosting the families.
Recalling his initial arrival at the crash scene command post, Quirk talked about the commitment and fortitude of all of the local first responders, which included Leflore County and Sunflower County volunteers, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Special Response Team and others.
He specifically mentioned former Leflore County Emergency Management Director Fred Randle. Quirk said when he first asked who was in charge; the response was “you are,” so he then asked, “Who was in charge before I got here?” They told him Randle.
Quirk spoke of Randle’s competence and jokingly said Randle only masquerades as a country boy. “He is probably the most connected person in the Mississippi Delta,” he said. And he added, “We were really lucky to have Fred on our team, he’s always three steps ahead of everybody.”
Randle, who is now Chief of Police in Moorhead, said after the ceremony that taking the lead at the crash site was his most trying experience. Mainly because it was a major incident and it meant taking on many roles.
“In Leflore County, we work ag-plane accidents, but on this particular day we didn't expect it to be a military KC-130 plane with 16 people onboard that lost their lives.”
Randle said once they learned of the magnitude of the incident, their main concern became recovery.
“Our priority was to get these 16 servicemen back, where their families could have closure,” he said.
He praised the efforts of the local volunteers as well as military officials and how well they worked together as a cohesive unit.
Randle said they wanted all of the soldiers to go back together. “One group as they were flying on that aircraft,” he said.
He said their achievements proved that they could come together as “one Mississippi” to accomplish much; however, he acknowledged that there are still some things that need to be achieved in order for the Delta teams to work as one.
Although Randle still has very vivid memories of that time, he expressed gratitude to God for allowing him to stay mentally capable of continuing to serve in his day-to-day capacity.