SAN ANTONIO, AUG. 31 -- Only two weeks ago, Edward E. Sheffield, 28, an easygoing staff sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, was jokingly calling himself "Mr. Mom" for the time he spent at home with his 2-year-old daughter, Valerie, while his wife, Veronica, prepared for a student-teaching assignment.
Today, his remains rest at Ramstein Air Base in West Germany with those of 12 other victims of the crash Wednesday of a massive C-5 Galaxy cargo plane bound for Saudi Arabia.
Flags are flying at half-staff throughout San Antonio, home to most of those who died in the most tragic incident involving U.S. troops since the Persian Gulf conflict began. Memorial services are planned here next weekend, when the bodies are expected to be returned. In Texas and Washington, politicians are offering eulogies for Sheffield and his crewmates, saying they made the ultimate "sacrifice for peace." But Veronica Sheffield, at 27 a single mother and widow of war, wonders whether the sacrifice was worth it.
"None of this would have happened if -- there's always if this and if that -- if they wouldn't have had to have the mission, if the U.S. hadn't been there in the first place, or if Iraq hadn't done what it did," she said in an interview today. "My husband agreed with what the U.S. was doing, and at the time I did, too, in a way. But now I'm not sure. No. No, I'm not sure it's worth this sacrifice."
Sheffield and his crewmates did not have to go to war. They were reservists, members of the proud unit of C-5 Galaxy specialists in what is known as the "Alamo Wing," the 433rd Military Air Wing at Kelly Air Force Base on this military city's sprawling south side. Their unit had not been called up. But the monumental task of supplying troops and heavy equipment to Saudi Arabia required all of the cargo planes and expert crews that could be found. Finding volunteers among the "Alamo" boys was not difficult.
A few nights before Sheffield left on the morning of Aug. 17, he and Veronica stayed up late discussing the decision. He wanted to go because he was between jobs and could use the pay, comparable to that of active-duty status, he wanted to support his country in a time of peril and he was always eager to sharpen his skills as a loadmaster. He was the specialist who ensures that a load is secure and balanced on the C-5, the largest aircraft outside the Soviet Union, six stories high and the length of a football field, with enough room inside for 18 Greyhound buses.
Crews from the 433rd have been flying and maintaining C-5s longer than any reserve squadron in the nation. They have 17 of the giant airships at Kelly, where all C-5As and the newer C-5Bs are inspected and repaired.
Like many of his buddies in the wing, Sheffield considered the planes his home, or warehouse, away from home. Despite their ungainly looks, they were considered safe, with two crashes in 20 years of service, the most notable being the infamous crash of one carrying orphans from Saigon in 1975.
On the mission with Sheffield were nine other members of the "Alamo Wing," enough for two normal crews. Three were pilots -- Majors Richard W. Chase, Richard Price and John M. Gordon. Also along were Tech Sgt. Daniel Perez and Staff Sgt. Lorenzo Galvan Jr., loadmasters; Senior Master Sgt. Carpio Villarreal and Master Sgt. Rosendo Herrera, flight engineers, and Staff Sgt. Daniel Garza and Tech Sgt. Lonty Knutson, crew chiefs. All but Gordon, of Spring, Tex., were from San Antonio.
Many of them were pals in the tight unit, and Galvan was the lone survivor. They ranged in age from Herrera, 45, a grandfather, to Garza, 24.
"It was a devastating blow to us," said Maj. Meade C. Warthen, the 433rd's public affairs officer. "When we got the news, we were all in a state of shock. It was the first major disaster for the 433rd. But if anything, it only increased our very intense commitment to support our country's needs in Operation Desert Shield. We know these people died in service to our country, and we look upon them as inspiration for the rest of us."
Hours after the accident, merely by coincidence, the entire 230-member 68th squadron of the 433rd was among reserve units activated by President Bush, adding to the sense of urgency at Kelly. For three weeks, several departments at the Air Logistics Center have been "surging" -- working shifts around the clock -- to maintain the cargo planes, equipment and distribution of war materiel for Desert Shield.
According to Col. Dave Zorich of the aircraft maintenance division, four C-5As have been returned to service at double-speed and three more are on the way. The Air Force has 125 Galaxies, and each is scheduled for a five-month overhaul known as "depot maintenance" at Kelly every five years. The plane that crashed was overhauled in January 1988.
After leaving San Antonio, the ill-fated crew made one stop at an unspecified U.S. base to pick up heavy equipment bound for Saudi Arabia, then flew to Ramstein. There, adhering to Air Force procedures, they rested for 16 hours before departing on the second leg of the long trip.
Each time such a transport plane lands in Europe, a rested crew comes aboard for the flight to the Middle East. Thus, the men from San Antonio did not board their own C-5A for Saudi Arabia because it had flown off with a rested crew.
It was 12:30 a.m. Wednesday in Germany when they headed down the runway on a plane that had come from Travis Air Force Base in California and was carrying 17 crew members, medical supplies, food and aircraft maintenance equipment. Four survived the crash. The other victims were passengers being shuttled 90 miles to Frankfurt, the plane's first stop en route to the Mideast.
Treatment of the crash has been somewhat muted, partly because of uncertainty about whether the 13 victims will become only an early and forgotten footnote in a much larger conflagration and perhaps partly because they did not die in the deserts of the Mideast.
Warthen said Air Force officials in Washington told him that no military service would be held at Dover (Del.) Air Force Base when the remains are brought there next week. Ceremonies at Dover have become familiar rites of honor and remembrance over the years but apparently will be forsaken in this case.
"They said that, if they do it for one, they will have to do it for all," Warthen said. "And if war breaks out, that would be an overwhelming task."
For Veronica Sheffield, the task already is overwhelming. At 5:30 p.m. here Wednesday, as her husband was dying in Germany, she had just returned from buying supplies for her stint as a kindergarten teacher at Lackland Elementary School that is to begin next Tuesday. She and Valerie were on the couch, watching television, looking at red pens and notebooks and colored paper they had bought, when a news report flashed that a cargo plane had crashed in West Germany.
Details were sketchy, but Sheffield said her heart and instinct told her one thing: Her husband was on that plane. She called her mother and sister in Laredo and asked them to drive here. They stayed up all night, watching television, seeking confirmation of news that they hoped would never arrive.
The doorbell rang at 5 a.m. The callers -- a chaplain, a high-ranking officer and a doctor from the 433rd -- did not have to say a word.
"I didn't wake the baby," Sheffield said. "I still haven't figured out how to explain . . . that her daddy won't be back. I hope she knows he was a good guy, a good father, a good provider, a good friend. If he is a sacrifice, I hope there won't be any more."