LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – “It’s been a tough 18 months for Team XL,” said Col. Lee Gentile, 47th Flying Training Wing commander, as he contemplated the wing’s preparation for a memorial service for 2nd Lt. Kristofer Saenz, who was killed in a car accident May 18, 2019.
“We’ve lost four vital members in about 18 months. That is never easy for a small wing like ours to handle,” he said.
However, Gentile said that while dealing with the deaths of two instructor pilots, Captains Paul Barbour and John Graziano, a civilian employee in Bonnie Frerich and a recently graduated student, Saenz, it’s important that people remember their contributions and lives and celebrate what they stood for during the Memorial Day weekend.
Shortly after Gentile took command at the wing, a T-38 Talon crashed on the edge of the Laughlin runway, killing Capt. John Graziano Nov. 13, 2018. As the brand new commander of Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, he guided the wing through the emergency response, and the actions that took place after.
Graziano was an Instructor Pilot assigned to the 87th Flying Training Squadron. He was a native of Elkridge, Maryland.
Two weeks later, Ms. Bonnie Frerich, a long-time Laughlin civilian employee in the 47th Contracting Flight, died in her home near Brackettville, Texas.
Base leaders recognized Frerich for her long-time dedication to the wing. Several years ago she’d moved to Goodfellow AFB, Texas before returning to Laughlin after realizing her heart was always with Team XL.
While it seemed the wing was recovering from these devastating blows which had begun with the death of Capt. Paul Barbour Nov. 20, 2017 there was another blow coming. The wing received a phone call at about 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning that Saenz, a recent graduate of Class 19-08, had died from injuries suffered in an accident in Knippa, Texas, earlier that morning.
He’d graduated several weeks earlier with orders to Dyess AFB, Texas, where he was going to fly the C-130 Hercules. The wing held a memorial service for Saenz, May 23, 2018.
“The loss of every one of these Team XL members left a hole in our hearts,” said Gentile. “It’s been almost like we recover from one blow and here comes another.”
Gentile said the wing has done everything possible to make Mental Health resources available.
Leadership has provided resources for units and around base so people who feel a need to talk to someone will get the help they need.
Some of the resources available are Military OneSource, Primary Care Behavioral Health, Military and Family Life Counseling, mental health, wing chaplains and other recovery and helping agencies dedicated to members’ resiliency.
However, Gentile had a recommendation as the wing approached a four-day weekend marking Memorial Day.
“It is healthy to remember each one of these Team XL members who gave so much to us,” Gentile said. “I know I’m going to take a moment and just celebrate their service and life, their sacrifice and what they stood for. It’s what Memorial Day is designed for.”