SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. --
Cathy Berlin-Obregon walks up to the Scott Air Force Base Visitor’s Center wearing a navy blue Air Force Academy shirt. Dog tags hang from a chain around her neck, and she is surrounded by a crew of friends who’ve come to support her. She is moments from receiving Scott Air Force Base’s first Gold Star Family Card.
The Gold Star Family Program is an initiative to give back to those whose loved ones have passed away due to combat or terrorism. The card gives 24-hour base access to family members who would normally have to be escorted onto military installations, such as parents, adult children and, in Obregon’s case, siblings.
Obregon’s sister, Maj. Phyllis Pelky, was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan, in late 2015 in support of NATO-led Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Pelky was traveling to a meeting with an Afghan force development colonel when the helicopter crashed, claiming her life and the lives of four other passengers: two British troops, a French contractor, and Master Sgt. Gregory Kuhse, who was assigned to the 3rd Manpower Requirements Squadron at Scott.
Obregon remembers her youngest sister as one of the most joyful people she’s known. She said the protective spirit she has over Pelky has only grown since the crash; she now protects her legacy, ensuring that she isn’t forgotten.
“I don’t ever want to forget her, and this is on me 24 hours a day,” said Obregon, holding up her sister’s dog tags. “I don’t want other people to forget her either. I talk about her as freely as I can.”
At Obregon’s side, among the village of friends, is Col. Laurel Burkel, Air Mobility Command Fuel Efficiency Division chief and survivor of the crash. The two have become close since Pelky’s passing, offering each other support and understanding. Together, they describe Pelky as an adventurer who had a strong moral backbone and a natural ability to connect with people.
“She was adventurous, and she just wanted to see the world and live life,” said Obregon.
Burkel saw this side of Pelky during the three and a half months they spent working together in advising the Afghan Air Force.
“She saw the deployment as an adventure,” said Burkel. “When you go on a deployment, you have all manner of why people are there. She was a volunteer.”
Even while on deployment, Pelky made sure to connect with everyone around her. Sometimes this meant taking the time and effort to learn the different languages of those around her.
“She loved to travel and she loved the languages,” said Burkel. “She would pick up a few languages of some of our the international food service workers there.
“I would say ‘hi’ to them, but she would actually talk to them a little bit and engage.”
Pelky’s love of languages dates back to her time as a high school German teacher and, later, an assistant professor of German at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Her funeral took place at the Academy’s Protestant chapel, as the Catholic chapel was too small to accommodate the many people impacted by Pelky’s death.
“When they drove her body to the funeral home, there were three miles—my husband clocked it—three miles of people on both sides of the street doing this,” said Obregon, popping a salute. “And if they weren't military, they were civilian, and they were crying, hands over their hearts. She was our Princess Diana in a way you know—died too young but had such an impact on people. Everybody knew Maj. Pelky. Everybody. And I think that was just her way. She just made sure that she got to know people.”
Pelky was buried at the Academy’s cemetery.
“She’s not a graduate and she’s there, which is pretty powerful,” said Burkel. “And it’s a very beautiful place for her to be.”
Obregon now has 24-hour access to the Academy grounds, and she no longer has to be escorted to the cemetery.
“I want to go back there and be able to do that on my own time and not have ‘Oh, it’s not visiting hours, you’ve got to leave,’” said Obregon. “I can go quietly and anonymously if I want to.”
These are perhaps the most valuable features of the Gold Star card, as they allow Obregon to visit her sister in peace, offering her what is now the most intimate way to connect with and remember her sister.