Fallen Airman’s sister befriends survivor of fatal crash, together they grieve loss

(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tara Stetler)

Cathy Berlin-Obregon, a gold star family member, and Col. Laurel "Buff" Burkel, Air Mobility Command Fuel Efficiency Division chief, hold up their dog tags that honor Obregon's late sister, Maj. Phyllis Pelky, Sept. 14, 2017, at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. Pelky was killed in a helicopter crash in 2015, and Obregon and Burkel have helped each other grieve her loss. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tara Stetler)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. --

On Oct. 15, 2015, a helicopter crash in Afghanistan claimed the lives of five passengers. Among the deceased were two British troops, a French contractor, and two Airmen: Master Sgt. Gregory Kuhse, assigned to the 3rd Manpower Requirements Squadron at Scott Air Force Base, and Maj. Phyllis Pelky, United States Air Force Academy assistant professor of German.

Four passengers survived, including Col. Laurel Burkel, Air Mobility Command Fuel Efficiency Division chief.

Shortly after the crash, while Burkel was in the hospital recovering from a broken neck, she came across an online effort to raise the funds for Pelky’s extended family to be able to attend her funeral. Pelky was to be buried at the Academy, but only the immediate family’s travel costs were covered by the military. Wanting to help, Burkel shared the link with her Facebook community.

“I pushed it out to them, saying ‘This is my Major’s family. If you can contribute to try to get the kids there, it’s a pretty important experience for them to have,’” said Burkel.

After sharing the fundraiser, Burkel was contacted by Pelky’s sister, Cathy Berlin-Obregon, and they formed an improbable friendship.

“She reached out and said, ‘I appreciate what you did. Can I call you and talk to you?’ And it was a little nerve-wracking for me because it was Phyllis’ oldest sister,” said Burkel. “I’m like, ‘Is she going to blame me?’”

Obregon, however, was grateful that Burkel was there to help her make sense of the crash.

“I knew Phyllis had gone there, but it was like, ‘what the hell happened?’” said Obregon.

Through their first interaction, Burkel quickly realized that their story had the power to help people heal.

“The story doesn’t take away the pain of losing somebody, but it’s understanding what happened, wrapping your brain around it so that you can move along with the grief journey,” said Burkel. “That’s what we have done for each other.”

While Burkel offered Obregon a better understanding of the crash, Obregon was there for Burkel during her long and painful recovery process. With a broken neck, Burkel spent months in a device that aligned her spine while it healed.

“It was definitely very nice to have that relief valve to go ‘Ahh!’ on Facebook,” said Burkel. “She didn’t judge me.”

Once she made a full recovery, Burkel gave Obregon a gift to express her gratitude.

“I had six screws in my head,” said Burkel. “When they came out, I gave four of them to my family who came over to help take care of me. I decided the fifth one I would give to her. So she’ll tell people that she’s screw recipient number five.”

Obregon said that she carries it with her at all times.

“It tore a hole in one of my pants pockets,” said Obregon, holding up the tarnished screw.

Along with helping each other through the first few months of initial shock and recovery, Obregon and Burkel supported each other long-term as they grieved Pelky’s loss.

“If I felt like I was having a hard time with Phyllis, I could call her (Burkel) up or be on messenger and start crying, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe how this feels,’” said Obregon. “Finding a friendship in the process of grieving a death? I never would have planned that.”

Added Burkel, “We have walked arm-in-arm through the grief journey.”

While they admit that the burden of grief can never be completely healed, they said their friendship helps to lessen the pain.

“If it’s somebody that matters to you and you lose them, you are never going to get over that,” said Burkel. “What happens is, how do you carry that for the rest of your life? What I can do for people is help them carry that grief a little better.”

Obregon agrees that their friendship has helped her carry her grief for the past two years.

“In my grieving, I always think, you don’t do that alone,” she said. “If you try to carry the burden alone, it gets so darn heavy that you’re crushed under the weight of it. That’s what we represent. We’re the support, the village. It makes the load a little lighter. I can share it with her; she can share it with me.”