Gregory M. Cindrich – Captain, United States Air Force

From a press report: April 18, 1999:

They met in Alexandria, Virginia, at a country-western bar that isn't even there any more. She knows; she looked. It's gone, out of business, poof, as if it was never there. Country-western wasn't her speed, but a friend insisted they stop on their way home. “You have to see this place,” the friend said. She walked in and saw people dressed like cowboys and cowgirls “two-stepping and all that.” And military guys, lots of them. Again, not her speed.

But the two women went in and hung out, and after awhile a hulking Marine came up to her and wouldn't let her be. It was 1992. Monica Cindrich was 21, a senior at George Mason University. She had noticed the other man, even exchanged furtive glances with him from across the bar. He seemed to sense her predicament, not that it wasn't obvious. When the big Marine left for the bathroom, the other military guy moved in her direction. She remembers hoping he was coming to talk to her. Turned out he was 23, grew up in Maryland, 20 minutes from where she grew up in Virginia, and was an Air  Force pilot in training based in Lubbock, Texas. “We talked about everything,” she remembers. “I loved him right away.” In 1994, they married and had a child.

In 1997, she became a widow. On September 13 of that year, when the future looked so promising, Captain Gregory M. Cindrich's Air Force C-141 was returning from Windhoek, Namibia, where it had delivered a mine-clearing team for a humanitarian mission. Forty-five minutes into its flight, the plane was struck head-on by a German Luftwaffe TU-154 flying at what three investigations later said was the wrong altitude. A cockpit voice recorder revealed Captain Cindrich and the other eight crew members did not die on impact. They lived – realizing their situation – another 13 to 30 seconds. Reading the transcript – mundane through the beginning and middle, stark at the end – is still nothing like hearing the actual recording. The Air Force, she says, didn't want her to hear the tape. “It would be too devastating,” they told her.

She fought them. And won. And heard: “Oh damn.” “Mother (expletive deleted).” “Oxygen mask, get them on, get them on. Get the flashlights quick.”

Captain Cindrich's body was never recovered, only the tattered remains of his flight jacket. “I will get old without him,” Cindrich says. “No part of him remains except for his son and his wife. My child – he ran up to every blonde man in a flight suit for a year screaming, ‘Daddy.' ” Last Friday would have been Cindrich's wedding anniversary.

Monica Cindrich, now 28 and a resident of North Charleston, spent part of the day at Arlington National Cemetery, where a group burial for the crew members was held with full military honors on April 2, 1998. The purpose of her visit to Washington was not to visit the cemetery. It was to tell her story to lawmakers, Air Force officials, reporters, and anyone else interested in what she calls fairness for the survivors of the American crewmen.

“I don't want pity,” she says. “I want support and compassion, but I don't want pity.” The visit, oddly enough, was prompted by the attempt of her native-state Sen. Chuck Robb, D-Va., to ensure that the United States compensates the families of 20 people (including seven Germans) killed last year when a Marine Corps jet snapped the cables of a gondola in Cavalese, Italy.

“I'm told those 20 people had just eight seconds left to live from the time the cable was struck,” Robb said recently. “Eight seconds doesn't seem like a long time, unless you know you're going to die.” Cindrich was struck by what Robb said next: “We  know that it was our fault. They were our air crew. It was our plane.”

Robb on March 23 offered legislation that would have required Secretary of Defense William Cohen to resolve any claim from the gondola incident within 90 days of the bill's passage and given him authority to offer up to $2 million per claim. What occurred to Cindrich, who has received no reparations from the German government even though her husband's plane went down a year before the gondola accident, is that there is no Chuck Robb championing her case in Bonn.

Bonn is the home of the German Ministry of Defense, the body that will rule on the claim filed by Cindrich and her Washington attorneys. They are seeking a total of $3.9 million to compensate for: lost income; pain; suffering and mental anguish suffered by Cindrich prior to his death; Monica Cindrich's loss of “society and companionship;” the family's grief and anguish; and the loss of son Christopher's nurturing, care and guidance.

Cindrich's top ally in Washington, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., quickly announced his opposition to Robb's legislation. Thurmond said he would try to block the measure until Germany paid reparations to the survivors of the earlier crash caused by the Luftwaffe jet. Thurmond also whipped off an angry letter to Germany's U.S. ambassador. As of week's end, the Honorable Juergen Chroberg had not responded. Robb, however, had a change of heart. Key aides to the senator told Cindrich last Thursday that Robb would go along with Thurmond's wishes.

Emerging from Robb's Senate office, Cindrich said, “It took me by complete surprise. As of yesterday, I really felt in my heart they were going to give better consideration” to the families of the gondola victims. Standing in the long, narrow hallway, words echoing, busy congressional staffers scurrying in all directions, Cindrich paused to take stock. She had expected Robb to be dug in; she had arguments carefully planned out and never got to use them. She was packed with unused ammunition. The news, on reflection, was good, but she kept her enthusiasm in check. “I really want to see results before I  get the pom-pons out,” she said. What caused Robb to change his mind? Was it Thurmond? Was it the announcement last week of a reelection challenge next year from former Virginia Gov. George Allen? “I really don't care,” she said flatly. She has surprised people since that awful day.  Some wrote anonymous hate mail when it came out that she felt the Air Force mishandled the search for her husband's remains, and when she began pushing hard for improved safety equipment on Air Force planes. Nameless critics called her “a failure in my last role as an Air Force wife,” she said. “I didn't sit back and be quiet, say nothing, and accept my flag, tell my son rah, rah, rah. “I didn't do that and I don't think Greg would have wanted me to do that. I don't really give a damn about sticking up for the institution, being their spokesgirl.” Nor did she strike out wildly. Many law firms, for instance, were interested in handling her case. She chose a Washington firm that not only handles aviation suits, but which also said up front that Cindrich needed to build up political support in Congress. One of her first forays was to the office of 1st District Congressman Mark Sanford, R-S.C. To make her point, she brought along the remains of Capt. Cindrich's flight suit.

Sanford was shocked. Looking back, Cindrich is a little shocked herself. She has refined her pitch considerably and sounds these days like any of the well-heeled lobbyists who pad around Capitol Hill. Cind-rich can tell her story in under five minutes, tosses around phrases like, “This part is off the record,” and makes sure to establish quick eye contact when she speaks. “I guess when you're a Washingtonian, you just know the ins and outs a little better than if I were from Topeka,” she says.

“Totally dogged,” agrees Sanford. “The larger lesson is that persistence pays off in politics.” “Wherever I've lived,” Cindrich says, “I'm the type who registers to vote. I put my shopping cart back. I believe you can either sit back and complain and let yourself die inside, or make the political process work for you.”

In Washington last week, the plan was not scattershot. She sought out Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., and Warner's counterpart in the House, Armed Services Chairman Floyd Spence, R-S.C. She called on Texas lawmakers like Sen. Kaye Bailey Hutchison because Capt. Cindrich was still a resident of Texas when his plane went down. She visited with Colorado lawmakers because the Air Force Academy is in Colorado Springs. She met with Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., because Skeen is a pilot who served in the Navy and Air Force Reserve, and because New Mexico is the home of Holloman Air Force Base, where German fighter pilots come to train.

“He just shook his head and said Greg should never have died,” Cindrich said of Skeen. She was to meet with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and of course paid visits to the S.C. and Virginia delegations. A professional lobbyist from Cind-rich's Washington law firm joked that she stayed quiet most of the time because the client did so well flying solo.

And yet there remain moments when some snatch of conversation, or perhaps a random memory, or maybe the third or fourth in a series of otherwise easy questions, punches through and finds a nerve. Cindrich's voice quavers, though she says she tries to “save my crying for the shower and at night.” Until it's over, until Germany treats the American survivors as well as Robb wanted to treat the German survivors, she says, “I will have no peace, no closure, no opportunity to take a step forward.”

When that day comes – and the smart money now seems to be on Cindrich and the other family members eventually receiving reparations – Cindrich says she will remain in the fray as an advocate for others in her position.

“People,” she says firmly,” should be held accountable.”

Captain's widow heads to Namibia
March 16, 1998

A widow and her 3-year-old son are flying to Namibia this week to attend a memorial service for her husband and others whose Air Force transport crashed last year after a midair collision with a German Air Force jet. “I have no great desire to be there, but my heart says I ought to go,” said Monica Cindrich in an interview Friday.

Cindrich's husband, Captain Gregory N. Cindrich, died September 13 when his C-141 jet, based at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, collided with a German Air Force Tu-154 transport off the southwest coast of Africa. All nine crew members from the C-141 perished, along with all 24 crew members and passengers aboard the German jet.

Since her husband's death, Cindrich has criticized the Air Force on issues of safety and the military's failure to install a collision-avoidance device known as TCAS on all of its planes. TCAS is an acronym for Traffic-alert and Collision Avoidance System, a high-tech device that warns pilots of an approaching plane and tells them either to climb or descend to avoid a collision. The FAA has required TCAS on most civilian airliners in the United States since 1993, but the U.S. military has been exempt from that rule.

To date, TCAS has been installed on only a handful of Air Force transports, including Air Force One and other jets that fly President Clinton and other VIPs around the world. Cindrich said she and her son, Christopher, would leave the United States today for Windhoek, Namibia, where the memorial service will be conducted. She said the Air Force had offered to fly her and her son to Namibia on a C-141, but she refused. “I'm not about to put myself and my son at the same risk my husband had to take,” she said. Instead, she and other survivors will fly to Africa on a commercial jetliner at Air Force expense.

A C-141 from McGuire is scheduled to carry a senior officer and others from the New Jersey base to the ceremony.  The U.S. ambassador to Namibia will name the embassy's courtyard “Starlifter Courtyard” in memory of the plane and its crew, the Air Force said Friday. Namibian President Sam Nujoma and other senior officials of the Namibian government are expected to attend. The service will conclude with a flight to a point over the South Atlantic where the two planes went down, Cindrich said. Family members of the deceased airmen have been invited to place mementos in a box that will be dropped into the ocean. Cindrich said she declined to give up any mementos of her late husband. “I'm not putting anything in there. They've already taken everything away from me,” she said. Cindrich also has criticized the Air Force for a lack of sensitivity toward her and other surviving family members of the crew.

She said she is especially upset at the Air Force's refusal to let her view the human remains that were recovered  from the crash scene but haven't been positively identified. The remains are to be buried April 2 in a common grave at Arlington National Cemetery. The Air Force has been able to identify the remains of only two of the nine Air Force crew members. A limited number of other remains were recovered, but experts weren't able to pinpoint their identities.

“I'm fighting for the right to spend a minute viewing those remains,” Cindrich said. “I want a private moment to pay my respects,” she said. “They're saying it's inappropriate for me to do this, but they (the Air Force) sent me a photo of the remains. To me, it's weird contradiction. I don't expect anyone to comprehend my need, but this is the only way I can address my pain.” Cindrich said she has received help from The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. TS is a nonprofit, vice-based organization that provides comfort and counseling for survivors of GIs who die on active duty. Its headquarters is in Washington, D.C. TAPS President Bonnie Carroll said the organization doesn't lobby the government but does help military organizations train their personnel on how to handle casualty notifications.

None of the nine crew members on the C-141 that collided with the German jet were stationed in Charleston at the time, but two of them – Cindrich and Staff Sgt. Robert K. Evans – had been stationed here before. Cindrich was assigned to the 15th Airlift Squadron in Charleston before being transferred to New Jersey. Locally, Air Force officials declined to criticize the way Mrs. Cindrich and others in New Jersey were notified of the fatal crash, but they noted that the Charleston base conducted a casualty notification exercise a month later.

“Because of that (fatal) incident, we decided we should practice our procedures so if it happened here we'd be as prepared as we can be,” said Staff Sgt. Sonya Wilson, a casualty assistance representative at the base. During the exercise, Air Force families – who had been briefed in advance – played the role of grieving survivors of a crew killed in a mock crash. “We appreciated Mrs. Cindrich's comments,” Charleston Air Force Base spokesman Major Tom Dolney said. “They helped us identify the need to do better and to be better prepared.”

In the meantime, Cindrich said she plans to continue urging Congress to order the military to speed up its installation of TCAS on its planes and to take the whole issue of safety more seriously. Moreover, she wants Congress to pass a law that would overturn the Feres doctrine that grants the government and the U.S. military immunity from lawsuits stemming from death or injury to GIs due to military negligence. The Feres doctrine is named for a 1950 Supreme Court ruling. Such changes, Cindrich said, would be the only way her husband's death could have a purpose.

“My son and I talk about his father every day. He's at a point where he can remember things. When he's older, I want him to look back and say he can remember and mourn his father and know how he died.” her  3-year-old son are flying to Namibia.

NOTE: Also See: Air Force Crew Laid To Rest

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