A 39-year-old South Florida man who attained the rank of master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force was among four people killed in Saturday’s apparently accidental crash of a drug-hunting plane in Colombia, the U.S. Southern Command said Wednesday.
Southcom identified the sole U.S. service member on the Dash-8 as Air Force Master Sgt Martin Laureano Gonzales, who was affiliated with the Air National Guard. Melissa Gonzales, his widow, said in a statement released by Southcom that he was survived by two children, Nathan, 7, and Kaitlyn, 4, and that “he passed away very tragically while proudly serving for the U.S. Air Force.”
Gonzales, who lived in Miramar, was functioning as a U.S. military liaison aboard the contractor plane that was searching for drug-traffickers over the western Caribbean on Saturday when it mysteriously crashed inside Colombia near the city of Capurgana.
Two other Americans, not yet identified, and Panamanian National Guard Lt. Elroy Nunez were also killed. Another two American contractors survived the crash, with serious injuries and were hospitalized in Bogotá, Southcom said.
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Southcom said there was no evidence that the crash, still under investigation, was the result of a shootdown.
“It is a terrible tragedy, but we remain committed to finding out what happened and hopefully bring some sort of peace to the families,” said Marine Gen. John Kelly, the commander of Southcom.
Kelly’s Pentagon outpost has oversight of the Joint Interagency Task Force-South, the Key West anti-trafficking operation that used the plane’s intelligence.
The aircraft was over the Caribbean on Saturday morning and the crew had notified headquarters that “they had located a suspect vessel,” said JIATF spokeswoman Jody Draves. Team members were contacting the Colombians to conduct either “an interdiction or a disruption,” Draves said, “when communications were lost.”
The Colombians scrambled some helicopters and found the crashed plane with two survivors, both American contractors and both suffering “shock, head injuries and burns.”
While piloted by a contractor, the flight routinely carried a member of the U.S. military on board to provide military coordination, Draves said.
“He loved his job and was willing to risk his own life for others,” Gonzales’ widow said in her Southcom statement.
“I still can’t believe the plane my husband was in crashed and took his life. All I have left are memories of him. It’s difficult to know that I will never see or hear his voice again. To me, he is an American hero!”
The military was unable to provide details on Gonzales’ funeral. His remains were expected to be brought to the U.S. Air Force Mortuary in Dover, Del., and returned to his widow in a flag-draped coffin.
At the Pentagon, Army Maj. Jon Craig said that Gonzales joined the Air Force on Dec. 29, 1992 and was promoted to master sergeant in 2010.
The airman’s role on the flight was as an interpreter, he said, with the duty title “Host National Rider Escort.”
Craig was unable to say what other jobs Gonzales held in the military but that his latest assignment was with the Air National Guard Readiness Field Operating Agency National Guard Bureau Domestic Operations, the counter drug division.
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, United Kingdom and the United States. Chile has also contributed to the operation.