724th AMS dedicates passenger terminal departure lounge

  • Published
  • By Capt. Emma Quirk
  • 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing
The 724th Air Mobility Squadron held a memorial lunch and lounge dedication event for the late Airman 1st Class Enrique “Tony” Santiago, on Aviano Air Base, Italy, Aug. 18, 2022.
Santiago was a Passenger Service Agent assigned to the 621st Air Mobility Support Group’s Detachment III, when he died in an automobile accident on Dec. 12, 1995.
The departure lounge of the base’s Air Mobility Command Passenger Terminal was originally named in his memory on March 26, 1997.
Over a decade later, in 2009 the passenger terminal on Aviano AB moved to a newly constructed facility.
The plaque and dedicated lounge were not transferred in the move.
In 2021, Tech. Sgt. Philip Lohret, 724th AMS non-commissioned officer in charge of operations at the time, found the original hand carved dedication plaque and began researching its background.
“I was clearing out an area in the Passenger Terminal when I found the plaque buried in some clutter,” Lohret said. “I assumed the plaque was moved over here from the old facility years ago and I knew we needed to do something about it. I began attempting to get ahold of veteran’s affairs in Puerto Rico up until I PCS’d.”
When Lohret left Aviano AB soon thereafter he handed the task over to Tech. Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaitan, current 724th AMS NCOIC of operations, who continued the research.
He first contacted the 31st Fighter Support Squadron Mortuary Affairs office asking for next of kin information. This led him to a phone number no longer in service and a P.O. Box addressed to a Fort Buchanan Post Office which has since permanently closed.
Gaitan called phone numbers linked to the base and other post offices in the local community yet continued to come up short. Next, he called the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Puerto Rico who, unfortunately, were also unable to further any connections.
Gaitan then resorted to several variations of internet search engine entries which still did not lead him to Santiago’s family.
His next step was contacting Veterans Affairs who redirected Gaitan to the National Personnel Records Center. Receiving results from NPRC had a three to four month wait time.
“At this point I was pretty much exhausted trying to find the NOK,” Gaitan said.
Gaitan took his efforts back to the worldwide web where he scoured social media to match the little information he had with search results. He sent out messages to several potential matches on the site and did not receive any responses.
Gaitan even considered contacting local Puerto Rican news outlets to help aid his search.
Before taking the search to traditional media outlets, Gaitan decided to test the power of social media one last time and queried the “Port Dawg” network. He posted an image of the plaque and all the information he had in a social media group for Aerial Porters, both past and present.
The post instantly brought results.
Gaitan found himself sitting in his car, the last one in the squadron’s parking lot that evening, making calls to leads provided by fellow Port Dawgs. With support pouring in he finally he got a message from a member of the group stating: “Dude!! I got her on the phone!”
“Her” was Santiago’s mother.
“My heart fell and I franticly messaged back,” Gaitan said. “I quickly called the number, my heart rate was through the roof. Tony’s [Santiago] mom picked up and I immediately started to get emotional. I could hear her raw emotion coming through the phone. I didn’t believe what just happened.”
From start to finish, the search took five months.
“Although I hit a bunch a roadblocks, there were several things that kept me going. One of the things that motivated me was my mother. She’s everything to me, she’s my hero,” Gaitan shared.  “I figured his mother was still alive and she would not want her son’s memory to be forgotten. We, the USAF and Port Dawg community, owed it to his family— especially his mother.”
Gaitan credits his Islamic faith as the reason for his commitment to reaching Santiago’s mother.
“There is a saying in Islam that roughly translates to ‘your mother was the door to this world, your mother will be your door to paradise. Take care of your mother,’” he said. “My religion put a large emphasis on the treatment and rights of mothers and I felt we needed to rewrite this wrong for Myrna, Tony’s mom.”
Finally, Gaitan felt a profound responsibility to the Port Dawg community.

“We talk about family all the time in the Air Force as Port Dawgs,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about Tony, I didn’t have to. The responses I got when I posted his picture on our Facebook page were really humbling. Almost everyone he worked with remembered him, they made patches in his memory, put his name in their retirement shadow box, wore his name on motorcycle club jackets. He was somebody important and it killed me that we let down a fellow Port Dawg and his family as the plaque bounced around and collected dust for years.”
After a successful search, the squadron held a memorial lunch to meet the family and learn more about Santiago in conjunction with the dedication event.
“I am proud of Philip and Abdul,” said Maj. Phillip Kapets, 724th AMS commander. “It would’ve been easy to walk past the plaque, it would’ve been easy to PCS and let the project fade, and it would’ve been easy to give up on the research. Neither of them gave up and created an opportunity to honor a fallen Port Dawg, the family, and our heritage. That’s leadership.”
In attendance during the event was the squadron, Santiago’s mother, father, sister, and sister’s family.
“Our family will forever be grateful that Tony’s memory will be kept alive especially after so many years.” Said Yessica Santiago Oldsberg, Santiago’s sister. “This thoughtful act of kindness meant the world to us. We are thankful to everyone involved.”
During the ceremony, the squadron presented the family with the original dedication plaque Lohret found last year.
The 621st AMSG was designated as such on July 1, 1994, until it became the 721st Air Mobility Operations Group on March 15, 2001. AMC presence at Aviano Air Base operated as a detachment under the group until March 1, 2005, when the unit was activated as the 724th AMS.
“This event demonstrated outstanding work by all involved,” said Col. Jens Lyndrup, 721st AMOG commander. “A class act by the men and women of the 724th AMS to make this right and lasting, through this they reaffirmed for all that their service, and the family’s sacrifices, are never forgotten.”
The actions of the 724th AMS reflect a Warrior Heart culture within the unit. Warrior Heart, coined and championed by AMC commander, Gen. Mike Minihan, is a culture of care, support, and connectedness used to strengthen Airmen and their families.