This Weekend's Tribute Greatly Appreciated

Notre Dame defensive backs coach Bill Lewis lost his son Gregg, an Air Force graduate, in a training mission, September 3, 1998. To honor Gregg and the 11 others in his unit, the Jolly 38 of the 66th-Rescue Squadron, players on both teams in the Air Force-Notre Dame game Saturday will wear the insignia like the Jolly Green Giant on the back of their helmets.

Lewis talked to the media Wednesday, opening up for the first time publicly about his son's tragic death.

Let me just cover a few things that I think are important, than I'll field some questions. First of all I've got a lot of people to thank. This whole thing was the idea of our youngest son Geoff. He kind of ran it by his wife Lisa, our oldest son Mark. They sensed how much he believed in what he was about to set out and do, and they encouraged him. He wrote letters to coach (Charlie) Weis and coach (Fisher) DeBerry, explaining what his idea was, and they kind of took the ball and ran with it. I certainly need to thank Geoff for this because I think the tribute is tremendous and I'll talk about that here in a little bit. You've gotta thank coach DeBerry and coach Weis for their kind of embracing the idea and going through the administration at the Air Force Academy and the administration here at Notre Dame. I've got to thank all those people who's desk that came across, because during that whole process I knew absolutely nothing about this. Geoff and Lisa and our two grandchildren came for the Stanford game, and some time during that week Charlie called Geoff and said you need to say something to your dad about this because it was all put in place for what was going to happen. So Geoff called me and explained what was going to happen and the next morning and coach Weis came into my office early and we had a talk about it. All the people who had any involvement, on behalf of our whole family, I want to express our most sincere and humble appreciation for this taking place.

The next thing I think is important is this is the first time I've discussed this with the media. This is not about Gregg Lewis. This country lost 12 good men. I want to make sure that everyone knows that that is who this tribute is too and that's what this tribute is all about. They were all members of the 66th-Rescue Squadron, so it's a tribute to that group and all the men and women before them and the men and women that have occupied and carried on the tradition of that squadron. It's a very special group. They're involved basically in combat rescue. It occurred while they were on a training mission. Gregg had served on a couple deployment missions approximently 18 months. He was deployed in Kuwait and Turkey in the postwar what was referred to the no-fly zone at that time over Iraq following Operation Desert Storm.

When he was home, they were involved in a training mission. There were two helicopters involved in the accident. They were fully staffed, so there were six people on both aircrafts, so we lost 12 men that night. So that's what this tribute is all about. Those 12 men, the squandron there at Nellis Air Force Base (out of Las Vegas), the appreciation I think we all need to have for those kinds of people.

You kind of stretch out, Gregg was a graduate of the Air Force Academy. I think in a way it's a tribute to their whole mission at the Academy and what they do. Having lived it as a parent and having seen your son go through the certification and the process of becoming an officer in the Air Force, I have nothing but admiration and appreciation for the Academy. Again I think this thing goes beyond one squadron, I think it goes towards the Academy and really the entire United States Air Force. Because Gregg was just a small part of that, the 66th Squadron is just a very small part of that. As you look at it, you really, as a parent of one of those 12 you have to appreciate something like this on as large a stage as we'll have Saturday.

Gregg was 28. He was a captain. He graduated and was in his sixth year. He was an aircraft commander. I've got a picture in my office, that's a special moment when you are given the assignment of aircraft commander because you get your name, you share the aircraft because it's flying 24 hours a day, but he has his picture in front of it when his name was put on the side of the aircraft. He was also a flight instructor, which is what happened. They were taking two co-pilots out in what was referred to as an upgrade. They have to go through certain things to be upgraded to an aircraft commander. He and the lietenant colonel were flying in the other aircraft. We have no idea what happened because when they left it was a night mission.

I talked to Gregg about an hour before the mission. We have a tradition in our family that all three of our sons call me on Thursday night. So they left out about 10 p.m. I talked to him about 8 p.m. and he was going to his final briefing as far as what was happening. It was intended to be a full-scale rescue of a down pilot. They were fully loaded with ammunition, it was one of those where they were simulating having to fight your way in and fight your way out. The only thing we know, there are no black boxes on military aircraft if they were to ever fall into enemy hands, so the last contact they had when they left Nellis and flew north into United States air space, north of Nellis which is a fast area. There is absolutely nothing out there. No lights at all. They were all using night-vision goggles. The only thing we know for sure is that there was reportedly violent weather in the area. Somehow, one aircraft either came up right underneath the other or sat down on top of the other. That's the only thing the investigation could determine based on some impact marks. It was either something came up or something came down. The wreckage burned for almost three days, so once they were sure there were no survivors that got out of the aircraft, they couldn't because of the extreme heat with all of the fuel and the ammunition on board, so it was not a pretty thing from that standpoint. That's what happened.

The 66th squadron, they have a patch. The helicopters they fly are the HH 60Gs known affectionately as the Jolly Green Giants. As a result when they adopted that, down at the bottom (of the patch) are two green feet, six toes on each feet. That is I believe the logo of the Jolly Green Giant company that produces vegetables and frozen foods. They went and at some point in the past got permission for that. When you're around Air Force people, and I was educated with the experience of Gregg, you find out how important those squadron patches are, because that's their fraternity, that's their sorority. At the bottom of this (patch) are those two (feet) and they always refer to the most important part of the patch was that. And their motto, which I would like to share with you, the motto of combat rescue and this particular squadron: These things we do that others may live.

What they're going to do is the team is going to where this (Jolly Green Giant Feet). That's going to be the patch that is put on the back of their headgear, both teams will wear it. It will certainly be something very special. Also may I add, I got an email from a gentleman at the 66th Squadron. They are deploying a couple of the HH 60G helicopters to the Air Force Academy on Friday. They are going to put on a demonstration for the cadets there at the Academy….They're going to do some sort of fly by at the game itself. So they responded, the people there at Nellis that thought this was important enough to deploy a couple helicopters and some pilots and what not.

First of all, Gregg was my size, almost the same size, same weight and so forth. He participated in high school football at Clark Central High School, all three of our sons graduated from Clark Central when I was at the University of Georgia. Clark Central at that time, Gregg was on the team in 10th, 11th and 12th grade, they played the state championship game against Valdosta High School both as a 10th grader and as a senior. He was a wide receiver, he caught one pass in his entire career (laughing). Then on the track team, he was on a state champion track team. He was a miler and a two-miler for them. He never won a race, he ran for three years, he ran both the mile and the two-mile and every meet they ran in, never won a race. But it was interesting he was elected captain of the track team his senior year. That was quite a tribute to him that the guys thought of him like that.

He walked on at the Academy, was a scout-team wide receiver and he loved every minute of it. They allow them to go through their freshman year as a walk-on and spring practice following that freshman season. They have a jayvee schedule and Gregg played in all the games and had a great time. As he always often expressed to me, it was the real fun part of his day and you hear academy kids say that. That with all the other stuff they go through, when they get a chance to go to football practice, that's the fun part of their day and he totally agreed with that. At the end of spring practice, he did not make the varsity squad. At that point in the Academy you can't continue as a walk-on because basically at approximently 4:30 every cadet on the campus and there is approximently 4,000 of them, have to be involved in some sort of physical activity. Either intercollegiate, intramural or some other form of activity, and he had some other things he wanted to do. Fisher gave him an opportunity to stay on as a manager and he appreciated that, and he remained closed to Fisher. Fisher kind of looked out for him. So he was a guy that loved to compete, but he probably would've been better off at a Division III school.

We had an opportunity, when I say we, I mean my wife and I had an opportunity four or five years ago, we passed through their briefly through the summer. On the wall outside of the chapel at the Air Force Academy, they have a memorial to any of their graduates who have died serving their country. We wanted to go by and see that. Also they're two places on the Academy, one Gregg was a very active member of their Association of Graduates after he left and they have an area outside of their building where you can put bricks, and Sandy and I had a brick placed and we wanted to see that. There was also an area, Gregg was a great runner. As a matter of fact, the last time Gregg, Sandy and I were together, I went out and ran the Las Vegas Marathon with Gregg. Then he was deployed shortly after. He came back in August, I was involved in preseason training camp at the time and of course the accident was September 3. That was the last time we saw him. He was forever running the grounds or up in the mountains they back into. And there is an area back there, kind of a beautiful green space where you can plant a tree and we did that. That was the only time we've been back. I also stopped by to see Fisher and visit with him at that time. Top Stories