Dixon student Aleah Kundrat documents stories from family members of 2017 c-130 crash
On 4 p.m. Monday, July 10, 2017, in Itta Bena, Leflore County, Mississippi, a plane carrying a flight crew of nine United States Marines, as well as six Marines and a Corpsman from 2nd Raider Battalion, crashed over the Mississippi River. The aircraft, Yanky 72, snapped in half due to the impact of its own propeller blade. The crew aboard spiraled out and were scattered across the crash site. All 16 passengers were killed.
Among the casualties was Staff Sgt. William J. Kundrat, 2d Raider Battalion. Those he left behind included his wife, Ashley Kundrat, son Ethan and daughter Aleah. In Itta Bena, a memorial stands bearing his name along the other 15 men who were killed in the crash. They are remembered as Marines who died doing their duty and their names encircle the memorial which bears a picture of Yanky 72. Aleah Kundrat wants them to be remembered for who they were out of uniform as well.
“She came up to me one day and told me, ‘Mrs. (Vanessa) Taylor is going to call you because I want to do a project on daddy’s crash,’” said Ashley Kundrat. “We talk about him every day. She knows she can always feel comfortable talking about him.”
“My class is a research class and the students are allowed to research anything they would like to know more about,” said Taylor. “They are taught research skills and presentation skills. One day I looked at Aleah as she was starting a new project and saw that she was researching the plane crash. I asked her why she wanted to learn about that. She said, with the sweetest smile, ‘My dad was on that plane’… I called her mom to make sure that it was okay and that Aleah could handle doing the project. I also talked with her about where to get her information as I did not want her getting it from just any source.”
The project was a PowerPoint presentation assigned by Taylor which was focused on teaching children how to cite sources. Research and information gathering are an important part of the curriculum in fifth grade as students transition to middle school in a digital world. For most students, that means reading a book or browsing a website to find information they’ll share in an essay or presentation. For Kundrat, the process was far more journalistic in nature.
Her mother and family members of the other service members affected by the crash had kept in touch in the years following.
“We’re very close,” Ashley Kundrat said.
Using the contact information for the families of the departed, Aleah reached out to find out more about the Marines and Sailor involved in the crash. Through word of mouth and written correspondence, the fifth grader put together a slideshow depicting facts and photos of the men. The facts she shared were not meritorious honors or accomplishments but snapshots into the lives of the 16 service members as their families, friends and former educators saw them.
“I wanted to memorialize my dad and all the guys who were involved,” said Aleah Kundrat.
The process, despite the tragic undertones, was well received by those close to the departed.
“A lot of people opened up to tell me their stories,” Aleah said. “I wanted to make sure it was ok to use their names. They asked my mom if we could send them the presentation… I wanted to learn about them (the Marines and Sailor) as people. No one really knew them as people. They knew them as Marines. One of them (Gunnery Sgt. Brendan C. Johnson) had just graduated art school and had set up an art studio in his house. He was a year away from retiring.”
As Kundrat reached out to places across the country, as far away as Seattle, she heard the stories of the men who had served with her father. As the stories flowed so did a deeper understanding of the men behind the mission.
Staff Sgt. William Kundrat’s favorite color was green. “Like my mom’s eyes,” Aleah wrote. “His favorite place to be was in the woods camping or hiking. He liked it so much that he wanted to eventually become an arborist. He loved his family so much. He would stay up late just to watch his daughter’s favorite TV show with her. He would get secret midnight snacks with his son and built many woodworking projects with his wife. He also had the same beard color as his son’s hair and the same color eyes as his daughter.”
Sgt. Chad E. Jensen, 2nd Raider Battalion, loved tattoos. “He planned to get big wings covering his whole back and his arms, like a battle-ready guardian angel. He didn’t have the best voice but he would sing all the time,” relatives told Aleah.
Staff Sgt. Robert Cox, 2nd Raider Battalion, was a walking Encyclopedia and world nacho connoisseur per his family. Sgt. Talon Leach, 2nd Raider Battalion, once completed a 12-mile ruck with a shattered left foot. Sgt. Joseph Murphy was a young father who Marines would constantly come to for advice on their own children. U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Ryan Lohrey “loved food and could eat more than most humans. Good thing he liked running as much as he like food,” those close to him told Aleah.
All 16 of the men aboard Yanky 712 were memorialized in such a manner in Kundrat’s presentation. Her approach was open and sincere, something which her mother says is part of her son and daughter’s way of dealing with life as a whole.
“When I was briefed in December (of 2018) by the Marine Corps, the first thing they wanted to do was ask what I got briefed on,” Ashley Kundrat said. “I’m just so proud of her. She’s such a strong girl.”
Not all exits are made equal. In light of a day which mandates a reprieve from the work day, often spent with family, the time to remember those who laid down their lives in the line of duty is all the more clear. For the crew of Yanky 72 and members of 2nd Raider Battalion who were on board the aircraft, their memorial still stands in Mississippi. Their stories, passed from word of mouth and small snippets detailing favorite foods and how they spent their time, now have a place to be shared.
“She is so proud of her work,” Taylor said. “I am so proud of her.”
The presentation plays on televisions across Dixon Middle School. Taylor spoke with the IT department to have Kundrat’s memorial to her father and his fellows on a loop. Anyone walking in the school, student, staff or visitor, is seeing the names, faces and stories of Yanky 72’s crew. For Aleah Kundrat, that was always the goal. The ten year old sums it up in four words.
“Always say their names,” Kundrat said.