Georgia base, families cope with tragedy of airmen swept away off Okinawa
ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. - The bodies of three Georgia-based airmen who were swept away by high waves as they explored the island on a day off were transported to Seoul, South Korea, where they will be examined by a medical examiner, U.S. Air Force officials said Wednesday. They will be sent back to the U.S.
The dead were identified as two Georgia Air National Guard members, Senior Master Sgt. James Swartz and Master Sgt. Daniel Paschal, as well as an active duty Air Force member, Staff Sgt. Joshua Schoenhoff. All three were based at Robins Air Force Base in central Georgia and had arrived for temporary duty at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa about a week and a half earlier, Air Force officials said.
They were visiting the northwest coast of the island when they were swept away around 3:45 p.m. Oct. 5. Swartz' body was recovered the same day, and Schoenhoff's and Paschal's bodies were recovered a few days later, officials said.
A fourth Robins-based airman who was with the three men was injured but survived and is recuperating on Okinawa, officials said.
Swartz and Paschal served with the 116th Air Control Wing, and Schoenhoff served with the 461st Air Control Wing.
"This tragic event has impacted both of our wings deeply and we will feel a great sense of loss for a long time to come," Col. Henry Cyr commander of the 461st told reporters Wednesday.
Swartz, 51, had been in the military for 33 years and was an aerospace propulsion superintendent. Paschal, 34, was an aerospace propulsion craftsman and had served in the military 11 years. They were both full-time National Guardsmen, said Col. Kevin Clotfelter, commander of the 116th.
"We lost two of our best," Clotfelter said.
Emily Bowden, a friend of the Swartz family, said the family did not wish to make a statement at this time and asked that their privacy be respected.
“He was an awesome father, husband ... a great Christian man,” said Swartz family friend Emily Bowden, according to The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph. “Our loss is Heaven’s gain.”Schoenhoff was an instrument flight control systems specialist and was recently named maintenance professional of the year for the 461st maintenance group, Cyr said, adding that Schoenhoff was a young leader rising through the ranks.
Shirley Hills Baptist Church Pastor Andy Cook said Schoenhoff was a wonderful man.
“When we heard that there had been an accident and that, in the group, there were people jumping into the ocean trying to save a friend, there was no doubt in our minds that Josh would have been one of those who immediately jumped in,” Cook said, according to the Telegraph. “That’s the kind of man that he wants to be.”
There is a Bible verse, Cook said, where Jesus says, “Greater love has no man than this, than a man lay down his life for his friends.”
“That’s the ideal Josh was aiming for,” Cook was quoted in the Telegraph.
Clotfelter and Cyr said they couldn't release many details about the circumstances surrounding the deaths because the investigation is ongoing.