South Florida’s military community paid tribute Monday to Air Force Master Sgt. Martin L. Gonzales, killed earlier this month in a plane crash while helping track narcotics smugglers in the Caribbean.
Gonzales’ widow, Michelle, and children Nathan, 7, and daughter Kaitlyn, 4, attended the ceremony at an auditorium at the U.S. Southern Command in Doral.
Pictures of Gonzales, 39, of Miramar, flashed on a giant screen in front of the nearly 500 people who gathered to sing, tell stories and remember the airman “who lived his life like a hero,” said Southcom’s chaplain, Ronnie King.
“His legacy and memory is that this young man paid the ultimate sacrifice so that others could have freedom,” King said after the memorial. “In my estimation, that’s a hero.”
Gonzales was a U.S. military liaison aboard the Dash-8 drug-hunting plane on Oct. 5 when it crashed inside Colombia near the city of Capurgana. Two other Americans, not yet identified, and Panamanian National Guard Lt. Elroy Nunez also were killed. Two American contractors survived the crash with serious injuries, and were hospitalized in Bogotá, Southcom said.
The aircraft was over the Caribbean when the crew notified headquarters that they had located a suspect vessel. Team members were contacting the Colombians to conduct an interdiction or a disruption when communications were lost. The Colombians scrambled some helicopters and found the crashed plane with two injured survivors.
There was no evidence that the crash was the result of a shootdown, Southcom said.
Southcom said the plane was contracted to provide detection and monitoring of drug-trafficking routes in the coastal region of Central America as part of Operation Martillo.
Fourteen countries participate: Belize, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. Chile has also contributed to the operation.
The crash is still under investigation, according to the Air Combat Command in Langley, Va..
Gonzales joined the Air Force in 1992, and was promoted to master sergeant in 2010, according to the Pentagon. His latest assignment was with the Air National Guard Readiness Field Operating Agency National Guard Bureau Domestic Operations, the counter-drug division.
José Ruiz, a Southcom spokesman, said Monday’s memorial “was an opportunity for the men and women to say goodbye to a member of the Southcom team.”
“It was a chance for us to come together and pay tribute to his service to our country and bid farewell,” he said.