In the wake of several recent devastating Marine aviation mishaps, a nonprofit started by a trio of active-duty pilots was busily arranging ways to help the families of their hurt and fallen comrades.
Capts. ains Phil "Donger" Duong, Jack "Chili" Guevara and Ken "Bronco" Hampshire, founders of The Wingman Foundation, had seen their share of tragedy. The three aviators The trio of Marine aviators boasted nearly three decades of experience between them. All three had mourned for friends and comrades who died during missions or training mishaps or while flying missions over the years.
Two of them were assigned to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469 when an AH-1W Cobra and a UH-1 Huey collided near Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona. Seven Marines, including six from HMLA-469, died in the accident.
"We saw that there were some gaps in the support the family received, and that's kind of what primed it," said Guevara, a Cobra pilot with HMLA-469 and The Wingman Foundation's director of operations.
The MARSOC Foundation, which assists critical skills operators and their families, or the Marine Reconnaissance Foundation, which serves those in recon, do a great job of taking care of their own, Guevara said. They wanted to create a similar organization for aviators and their families, he said.
Two years later, when So when Cpl. Jordan L. Spears with assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 163, died after bailing out of an MV-22B Osprey while deployed in the Persian Gulf with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the three friends made a decision. They would form a nonprofit dedicated to helping the families of fallen Marine aviators.
Three active-duty pilots launched The Wingman Foundation, a nonprofit, in 2014 to help the families of Marines involved in aviation mishaps.
Photo Credit: Courtesy The Wingman Foundation
"We were all deeply affected," said Duong, an Osprey pilot [correct? GH] with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 363 need squadron here please recalled. "We just called each other from three different locations all over the world and we just put our foot down."
Tragedy struck Guevara's squadron again in May when a UH-1Y Venom helicopter crashed during a humanitarian mission in Nepal. Six Marines, including four with HMLA-469, were killed.
"When we started this thing, we didn't realize it was 469 that was going to need it again," Guevara said. "We had no way to foresee that, but seeing what we went through and the families went through [in 2012], it was important to have a support structure in place."
Under pressure from Capitol Hill, the Defense Department eventually made an exception for the Marines' families, according to Foreign Policy. In the meantime, The Wingman Foundation team, which now has a team of had grown to five by this time, was busy raising money.
They distributed it as requests for aid arrived, helping pay for expenses like travel costs, said Capt. Michael Luke "Ponce" Goessman, a Cobra pilot with HMLA-T303 [need MOS and unit -- is he active duty or out? GH].
"After you hear about a mishap, everybody is reaching for something to do," he Goessman said. "You kind of get that helpless feeling. You really want to help the families, but you don't know what you can do without being too intrusive."
Just days later, an MV-22B Osprey crashed in Hawaii, killing two Marines and injuring several more. The Wingman Foundation again sprang into action, covering a Marine wife's flight from California to Hawaii after her husband was injured.
"The Marine Corps couldn't address it that quickly, so the command and the family contacted us," Duong said. "We had her bedside within 24 hours of notification."
In addition to raising funds for immediate needs like travel, the Marines also honor fallen aviators like Spears with memorial sites their families can visit and provide scholarships for veterans or dependents pursuing a higher education. They're currently working with the wife of Silver Star recipient Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, the commanding officer of Marine Attack Squadron 211 who was killed in the 2011 attack on Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, to award a scholarship in her husband's name.
The families they help are often surprised to find out a group of active-duty pilots is behind the organization assisting them in a time of extreme need, Guevara said. None of them had nonprofit experience before starting The Wingman Foundation, but they've successfully raised about $40,000 and hope to reach $100,000 in the next year, he said.
They've also had the full support of their leadership, Guevara said, who realize the families of the fallen might not get all the help they need if not for nonprofits like The Wingman Group.
"Those are our friends out there," he said. "This is about taking care of our friends quite literally. I think the families have been really grateful and that's what makes it all worthwhile in our eyes."