Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Salute to 3 Fallen Florida Guardsmen 2 Separate Ceremonies Honor 'Dedicated Service' of Men Killed in Plane Crash

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Salute to 3 Fallen Florida Guardsmen 2 Separate Ceremonies Honor 'Dedicated Service' of Men Killed in Plane Crash

Article excerpt

Hundreds of citizen-soldiers gathered in a hollow aircraft hangar yesterday to remember three Florida Guardsmen killed in a plane crash in Georgia earlier this month.

Empty boots and aviator helmets atop rifles served as mournful tributes to Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Wayne Duce, Chief Warrant Officer Erik Paul Larson and Staff Sgt. Robert Franklin Ward Jr.

The three Floridians and 18 Guardsmen from Virginia died when the C-23 Sherpa aircraft Duce was piloting crashed in stormy weather March 3 near Macon, Ga.

Florida Gov. Jeb. Bush and Florida Adjutant General Ronald O. Harrison joined about 500 mourners inside a Guard hangar at Craig Field, where Duce's family from Orange Park heard tributes to their husband and father.

It was the second of two memorial services yesterday. Earlier, a group of mourners gathered in Lakeland where the families of Ward and Larson attended a solemn military ceremony.

In Jacksonville, Duce was praised for his more than 30 years in the military. It included a year in Vietnam in 1971 and 28 as a Guard aircraft technician and pilot, mostly on the First Coast, where he grew up.

Looking at Duce's widow and children, Bush thanked them for the 49-year-old pilot's service. "You should know that this duty and this sacrifice was not something that was just thrown away," Bush said. "Your husband and your dad is someone we will greatly miss and [he will serve] as an inspiration for all of us," the governor said.

Brig. Gen. John F. Holechek, troop commander for the Florida Guard, presented Duce's wife, Miechell, with a Meritorious Service Medal and the Florida Cross in posthumous honor of her late husband.

With a large American flag as a backdrop, Harrison said the tragedy had created "an outpouring of the American spirit." He read letters from U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush.

"Their dedicated service to their nation will never be forgotten by the many who mourn them today," President Bush said in the letter.

Harrison said he has received cards and letters of sympathy from across the country.

"We have suffered a great, great loss," he said. …

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