Three Team J-STARS Airmen confirmed dead following drowning accident in Japan

  • Published
  • By Brian Shreve
  • Robins Public Affairs
With all the courage and resilience they are known for, it was proven this week that even the hearts of Team Robins members can be broken.  

The bodies of all three Airmen, who had been missing in Okinawa, Japan, following their being swept out to sea by high surf Oct. 5, have been recovered.  

And now, Senior Master Sgt. James Swartz, Staff Sgt. Joshua Schoenhoff, and Master Sgt. Daniel Paschal, will make their final journey home to the land they served. 

What had been days of trickling information regarding their fates, ended with the discovery of Paschal's body Tuesday; Swartz's and Schoenhoff's bodies were recovered the prior Sunday and Monday respec- tively.

With the exception of their families, it has been perhaps an especially mournful time for the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, J-STARS, team of which the men were members.

The three - on temporary duty at Kadena Air Base, Japan - were on a northwest Okinawa beach with a group of other airmen when the incident occurred. The waves were a result of a typhoon which had passed by the area the day before.

There had been no significant on-shore warning about the dangers posed by the surf as the storm had already moved hundreds of miles north, said Col. Henry Cyr, 461st Air Control Wing commander.

A fourth Robins Airman, whose name has yet to be released, has been hospitalized with non-fatal injuries,  he said during a press conference Wednesday at the Museum of Aviation, where he was joined by Col. Kevin Clotfelter, 116th ACW commander.

"These are trying days for all of us at J-STARS," said Cyr. "We will have a sense of loss for some time to come. Our priority has been on their family members during this difficult time."

Swartz, 51, worked as an aerospace propulsion superintendent, serving 33 years, 28 of them with the 116th. The Airman referred to by Clotfelter as a "leader of long history" lives on through a wife, two daughters and two grandchildren. 

Paschal, a 34-year-old aerospace propulsion craftsman, served with the 116th for eight years, following his three years with the Army. He is survived by a wife and 3-year-old daughter. 

"From a 116th standpoint, we lost two of our best," said Clotfelter. 

He added that Swartz's daughter is currently serving with J-STARS, and that Paschal's father retired from the unit. 

"There is a deep family connection," said Clotfelter, "a deep 116th and Air National Guard heritage in those families."

Though he was only 27, Cyr noted that Schoenhoff, 461st instrument and control systems specialist, was rising quickly through the ranks having served four years, three of them at Robins. The man recently recognized as 461st Maintenance Group Maintenance Professional of the Year is mourned by a wife and two young children.

The Airmen's remains were flown from Kadena to South Korea Wednesday, where they are being autopsied before being transported to a stateside port where their families will receive them, a process that could take days. Robins has not been identified as a port of delivery.

Cyr said he and Clotfelter were working together to assist grieving Airmen within the units in order to sustain the mission, something he said "takes a lot of emotional energy.

"As we go forward we have to figure out a transition mechanism, a pathway to getting back to normal J-STARS operations," said Cyr. "You can't do that too quickly because you have to take care of folks and give them an opportunity to grieve."

Clotfelter said now that the third Airman has been recovered, plans for military memorial services may be decided in the coming days.

As the investigation into the deaths continues, Col. Thomas Torkelson, 18th wing vice commander at Kadena, issued a statement commending those who took part in search efforts, which included local first-responders, the Japanese Coast Guard and 18th and 353rd Special Operations Group Airmen.

"We continue to grieve with the affected families but are thankful that true closure can now begin," he said. "We will never leave an Airman behind."