FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (Oct. 1, 2015) — On the early, frosty morning of Dec. 12, 1985, Amy Gallo’s Tennessee home was filled with the aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls. They were her husband’s favorite, and he hadn’t had them in more than six months.
Like many mothers, Gallo was juggling the sometimes overwhelming tasks of cooking, cleaning and tending to her two children. Her youngest, Sarita, had just began walking, and was exploring every square inch of their home with her newly-found ability.
Gallo’s then 3-year-old son, Chip, was quietly sitting in the living room watching “He-Man,” a popular cartoon in the 1980s.
This Thursday morning there wasn’t anything particularly unusual, except the young Family was excitingly awaiting the return of their Soldier, Richard S. Nichols, who had just spent the past six months in Sinai, Egypt, for a peace-keeping mission. Nichols was a sergeant in the Army and was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), on Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as an infantryman.
Gallo’s mind was all over the place, anxiously planning in her head what she would wear, how her children would react, and how her life would finally return back to normal – just in time for Christmas.
Gallo looked up in shock at Chip, who was staring back with a blank stare. Gallo asked him to repeat what he said, surely convinced that she had misheard him.
“Daddy’s dead,” he repeated with conviction. “Come look.”
Amy followed Chip into the living room, where a “Breaking News” banner was scrolling across the bottom of the television screen. “He-Man” had been interrupted to broadcast a plane crash that occurred in Gander, Newfoundland, carrying 248 Fort Campbell Soldiers returning from Sinai, Egypt.
Gallo’s palms began to sweat as screen showed a map with a dotted line that stretched from the airport in Canada to the very place Gallo shared a home with her Family, displaying the route the plane was taking. It was a map similar to what Gallo showed her son earlier that morning when they sat together at the table and she pointed and said, “That’s where daddy is, and this is where he’s going.”
Gallo’s heart sunk further every time words and phrases like “dead” and “no survivors” echoed through the television. Frantically, Gallo called her husband’s first sergeant’s wife to confirm that what she heard was a mistake.
“I called her and she said ‘Amy, oh Amy, I’m coming to get you,'” said Gallo, as she reminisced on that morning that happened nearly 30 years ago. “Once she picked me up, she looked at me and just said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and that’s when I knew it was true and that he was gone.”
Following the news of the crash, hundreds of Family members and fellow Soldiers filled the Fraternelli Gym on Fort Campbell – the very same place they were expecting to greet their Soldiers upon their return.
“There was so much chaos and confusion because no one knew who was on that plane,” said Gallo. “We didn’t have cell phones and computers back then. It was a long and heartbreaking waiting game. Some wives didn’t find out they were widows until two days later.”
A part of the confusion stemmed from the fact that the manifest was changed shortly before takeoff. Single Soldiers, who had a seat on the doomed aircraft, had graciously given up their ticket to Soldiers with spouses and children, so they could be home earlier to be with their Families.
“Here they were trying to give a gift, and it backfired,” Gallo said. “I couldn’t imagine how they felt.”
Although the Army has made significant progress on crisis management since the Gander crash, those systems were not in place in the 1980s. A loss of this magnitude was foreign to the service, and unfortunately the widows and widowers of Task Force 3-502 felt the brunt of that mismanagement.
“Instead of telling us right away that the plane had crashed, they told us that it was running late,” Gallo said. “They wanted to notify Red Cross, and psychiatric and get all these different people in place first to help us. I get it, but it took a long time for a lot of us to forgive them.”
With the aching sting of grief of the loss of their significant others still painfully existent, Gallo and a few other widowed women formed an alliance between them and relied on each other heavily for the support that was suddenly ripped from them.
“We cried together; we built each other back up from the pit of the bottom that we found ourselves,” Gallo said. “We were a little support system and were there for each other when we had to be.”
Gallo took her grief, coupled with the appreciation of the widows, who provided her with the support she so desperately needed, and began volunteering to assist other widows during that initial notification window – similar to the care teams that are in place in today’s Army.
The Army, and 2nd Brigade Combat Team specifically, have programs such as care teams in place that are charged with the delicate responsibility of providing emotional support to spouses of Soldiers who are killed – no matter the circumstances behind their deaths.
“I was kind of on call for the units who knew about my story, and I would go in about five minutes after the ‘men in green’ would,” Gallo said. “I would come home with bruises sometimes from these women who would hold on to me so tight.”
“You feel like you don’t belong to anyone anymore,” Gallo said. “It’s an indescribable emotion.”
The 30th anniversary of the crash is soon approaching, and Gallo has been heavily involved in the planning of the commemoration that will be held. Every year, Fort Campbell holds a remembrance ceremony, and, with the exception of one, Gallo has attended every single event.
“This is will be the first time since 1985 that a lot of these women will be at Fort Campbell again,” Gallo said. “It will be an extremely painful reminder for some, and I’m sure we’ll all still be there for them like we were all those years ago.”
Gallo has since remarried and has had three other children. Her children with Nichols, Sarita and Chip, are grown and now have children of their own.
Chip had his first son, Sept. 10, of this year. His name?
Richard S. Nichols, in memory of his father.