VIRGINIA BEACH — LaDeja Johnson was only 9 months old when her father and 17 other National Guardsmen from a Virginia Beach unit died in a military plane crash in a Georgia cotton field.
On the 15th anniversary of the accident Thursday, Johnson fought back tears as she expressed how much she wishes she could hug Staff Sgt. Randy Johnson and get to know him on a personal level.
"I was his baby girl. I was his little angel, so I know that he loved me so much," she said following a memorial ceremony at Camp Pendleton.
"It's just nice to see other people that knew him and see that I've grown to be such a beautiful woman."
LaDeja Johnson — now taller than her mother — is perhaps the most striking reminder of how much time has passed since members of the Air National Guard's 203rd Red Horse Squadron died on their return home from a two-week military construction project at Hurlburt Field, Fla., in 2001.
The C-23 crash that killed the 18 Virginians and three Florida Army National Guard aviators was the largest loss of life in the Virginia National Guard since World War II.
A memorial was built at Camp Pendleton that includes a life-sized red horse kneeling in front of a 7,000-pound black granite boulder etched with the names of the 21 victims. Bradford pear trees for each of the victims surround the memorial, with plaques at the base of each bearing a Guardsman's name.
While active-duty military units often have a lot of turnover, the same is not true in the National Guard. Some of the Virginia Beach unit's 200 members vividly remember the day their comrades died. One of those is Master Sgt. Al Dirosa, whose brother-in-law, Dean Shelby, was on the plane that day.
Dirosa said Shelby is who persuaded him to join the Guard after he got out of the Air Force. The men worked together in the same construction shop in the unit.
"That was the longest Saturday I had ever seen. Unfortunately, it still seems fresh in my mind," he said. "We think about him all the time."
Dirosa said he never considered leaving the Guard after the accident. If anything, he said he's become more committed. He said he attends the memorial ceremony ever year, even if he has to take time off from his civilian job in Norfolk as an aircraft mechanic.
For others, reliving the memories is too painful to attend each year.
"I came the first five years and said I can't do this every year. So I decided every five years I would do it," said Ellen Summerell, who lost her husband Richard in the crash.
She said she wants her husband remembered as "a very generous, kind, loving man."
Summerell said one of the reasons she comes is to see the families of other victims, including her friend Bonnie Self. Self's husband, James Beninati, died in the crash.
Self said it's important for her to attend to help keep his legacy alive among the family.
"It's bittersweet. We don't want to miss it. I have four children, now a grandchild," she said. "So I want them to always be a part of this. It brings up the memory, the loss. He was just a good man. He loved people, people loved him."