Two buses drove off into the gray gloom of intermittent rain cloaking Stewart Air National Guard Base on Wednesday, the seats cradling New York Air Force National Guard service members grieving the deaths of two of their own.
The buses were bound for New Castle Air National Guard Base, 180 miles to the south in northern Delaware where the remains of six Guard members killed Monday in Afghanistan — among them, New York Guardsmen Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa, 31, of Coram, and Tech Sgt. Joseph Lemm, 45, a veteran NYPD cop from West Harrison in Westchester County — would soon arrive to be turned over to their families.
Bonacasa and Lemm were part of the 105th Base Defense Squadron, a 290-member infantry unit that is the only one of its kind in the nation.
“We’re all hurting, and we are going to be hurting for a while,” said Master Sergeant Michael Bates, a fellow member of the 105th who knew both Bonacasa and Lemm. “I wanted to be here to grieve with the rest of my guys.”
The two New York guardsmen and the other four service members had been on foot patrol outside Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, said Col Howard Wagner, Vice Commander of the Air National Guard’s 105th Airlift Wing, which oversees the squadron.
A motorcyclist drove into them and detonated an explosive vest.
The 105th Base Defense Squadron is unique among the nation’s Air National Guard units. It is the only one that provides security outside of U.S. Air Force bases overseas.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, that has meant leaving the relative safety of heavily-defended airfields, and becoming vulnerable to insurgents hiding among civilian populations.
Wagner said the area outside of Bagram remains battle-scarred and dangerous.
“They go outside the relatively safe confines of a deployed air base,” to keep it safe, Wagner said. “It’s a difficult and dangerous undertaking that sadly was proven again on Monday.”
Wagner said both men had gone into harm’s way before.
For Bonacasa, near the finish of his fourth and final tour when he died, he was on a return trip to Afghanistan after serving there in 2013. Two years before that, the Coram father had been deployed to Iraq. But when volunteers were needed to return to Afghanistan two months ago, the guy nicknamed “Bones” stepped up.
“Knowing Bones, he did what he did out of pride for his country and pride for his unit,” Bates said of Bonacasa. “If his buddies were going there, he wanted to be there, too.”
Lemm had a nickname, too. He was called “Superman” in his unit because his solid build and Hollywood good looks gave him a resemblance to the late actor Christopher Reeve, known for his big screen turn as the superhero.
Besides his work with the Guard, Lemm was a 15-year veteran NYPD officer, promoted to detective in January 2014. He grew up in a small agriculture town in northeast Nebraska but found his way to New York City and the NYPD after a four-year hitch in the Air Force. Lemm was married and had a son and a stepdaughter.
Earlier this year, Bates said he returned from a security assignment at the U.S. Air Force Base in Kandahar, some 300 miles southwest of Monday’s suicide bombing.
That airfield was attacked two weeks ago, when Taliban fighters firing automatic weapons stormed the facility, killing scores of civilians in a market and school outside its gates, but failing to breach the perimeter.
Lemm and Bonacasa and the others were charged with providing a safe zone outside Bagram Air Base, also prone to violence.
“They would have experienced going out to various villages, and providing security for the team that was out,” said Bates, a Syracuse police officer who drove more than 200 miles to join with other members of the 105th in mourning their fallen comrades.
“The majority of the time they are delivering humanitarian aid — food, water, solar panels,” he said. “This time of year they would have been providing warm clothes, blankets, that sort of thing.”
Bates gathered himself momentarily, then continued.
“But once you’re outside the wire, you’re a target, unfortunately.”