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Sad Homecoming: Fallen Bend Airman Returns


Under gray skies, with snow flurries swirling in the chilled wind, a Bend family marked a somber homecoming Thursday afternoon as a military escort returned the remains of 26-year-old Air Force First Lt. Justin Wilkens to the Bend Airport, a fitting landing spot for a young man who loved to fly.

Wilkens was one of four Air Force special operations crew members killed Feb. 18 when their U-28 crashed in Djibouti, Africa during a mission. They were supporting Operation Enduring Freedom and assigned to the 34th Special Operations Squadron based at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

American flags also lined part of the runway at the airport east of Bend, fluttering in the breeze as the chartered plane arrived just after 3 p.m. with the flag-draped casket aboard.

“He was an amazing young man, and I wish he hadn’t have come home this way,” said Neva Cole, whose husband, Greg, employed Wilkens at Windward Performance, his high-performance plane-making firm, before he joined the Air Force.

Greg Cole recalled, “Whenever he would have a break from the Air Force, he would always swing by and say hello, and catch us up on what was going on. So this was the wrong kind of visit to have.”

Tearful friends and family watched silently and service members stood at attention, saluting or with hand over their hearts, as the casket was carried to a hearse for the procession to Niswonger-Reynolds Funeral Home.

“We’ve lost this young man,” said veterans activist Dick Tobiason, “and we revere his service to our country. And we will never forget him.”

Local veterans plan to honor Wilkens, who was serving his third tour of duty, with a flag on Bend’s Veterans Memorial Bridge, embroidered with his name, added to the others of Central Oregon service men and women who died defending our country.

A public service will take place this Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Westside Church in Bend. Volunteers will help install flags Saturday along the bridge, starting at 6:45 a.m., and at the church, starting at 9:30 a.m. Volunteers with several local organizations will hold flags along the church’s driveway as people arrive for the services.

“We’ll have our flags in the church beside the casket, a flag with his name on it,” Tobiason said. “We have two of his flags, and that’s our role in helping honor Justin.”

Also on Thursday, Gov. John Kitzhaber ordered all flags at public institutions to be flown at half-staff from sunrise to sunset on Saturday, in Wilkens’ honor.

?Lieutenant Wilkens loved and learned to fly in Central Oregon,? said Kitzhaber. ?He was a dedicated Air Force officer and a loving brother, son and grandson. His death is tragic and he will be missed by many, but his legacy will not be forgotten.?

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