NAVAL AIR STATION LEMOORE — It’s been more than three months since the aviator memorial statue debuted at Naval Air Station Lemoore, but the team responsible for the monument isn't finished yet.
Lt. Cmdr. Erik Kenny and Lt. Cmdr. Ben Charles started the project in late 2013 to memorialize Navy aviators who have lost their lives while stationed in Lemoore. The pair was first inspired to pursue the project after the death of their friend and fellow pilot Lt. Matthew Ira Lowe, who was killed along with weapons systems operator Lt. Nathan Hollingsworth Williams on April 6, 2011, while training for an air show.
When they first began raising money for the project, Charles said, they had doubts about their goal to raise $50,000 and bring the statue to fruition within a year.
“Honestly, we didn’t think it was possible,” Charles said.
After the calendar ticked over into 2014, things started to pick up. Charles said it became clear that local residents and businesses were happy to donate to the cause. By March they had raised more than $35,000 and paid for the bronze statue that now stands along the Reeves Bypass observation area, watching over one of the runways.
As efforts continued to raise money to buy the bricks, landscaping and other materials, the bigger challenge was coordinating all of the components to bring the project from concept to reality.
The statue was unveiled on Oct. 4, 2014. A few days later, Charles was able to arrange for the Blue Angels to fly over the monument when the flight demonstration squadron happened to be in the area on its way to San Francisco for Fleet Week.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, recognized Kenny and Charles’ efforts in November by presenting them with the Military Outstanding Volunteer Medal.
Although their inaugural effort is complete, the organization has continued to raise money to support those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and those currently serving. Their next fundraiser wwas held on Sunday, with a special showing of “Unbroken” at Lemoore Stadium Cinemas.
“We’ve been brainstorming about what we’re going to do next,” Charles said. “We don’t want this fire to burn out.”
Charles said it became clear early on that many of those who donated to the cause were doing it on behalf of current servicemen. That realization led the group’s board to begin discussing ways to support Navy aviators of the past, present and future.
“Unfortunately, the nature of this business is that we’re going to have tragedies,” Kenny said.
Following the death of Lemoore-based aviator Lt. Nathan Poloski, 26, who was killed in September when his jet crashed in the Pacific Ocean near Wake Island, the NAS Lemoore Aviator Memorial Association paid to fly in several of their comrade’s extended family members for the memorial services.
Over the holiday season, the group worked with NASL officials and Valley Children’s Hospital to provide gifts to three local families.
By the end of 2015, they hope to establish a scholarship fund to help local high school students who want to become naval aviators.
Among their long-term goals is the possible construction of a second memorial statue to be located in downtown Lemoore.
“We don’t ever forget,” Kenny said. “We never stop remembering those guys.”
Kenny and Charles said they plan to keep the organization running long after they leave. Kenny said his orders will be up at the end of this year and he doesn’t expect to be able to stay in Lemoore. Charles said he will be at NASL for at least another two years.
The memorial association’s board of directors currently includes the two men and a group of local residents. All directors said they hope to keep active duty naval aviators serving on the board for years to come.
“When the time comes, we’ll find replacements to keep that torch going,” Kenny said.