FT. BRAGG, N.C. — Injured soldiers were rolled on gurneys or in wheelchairs into a memorial service Tuesday for 23 paratroopers killed in a military plane crash last week.
"They were the sons of America, the very best our nation had to offer," said Maj. Gen. Mike Steele, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.
More than 3,500 soldiers and civilians jammed a gymnasium and stood outside during the hourlong service.
Some of the 83 injured soldiers walked into the gym with bandaged hands.
The accident happened last Wednesday when two planes collided on their approach to Pope Air Force Base, which is adjacent to Ft. Bragg. One plane landed safely; the other, an F-16 fighter, crashed and burned, skidding into a staging area where paratroopers were preparing for a daylight jump. The crew of the fighter safely ejected.
During the service, farewell speeches were punctuated by babies' squeals and the muted "huh-rah" from paratroopers using the traditional grunt to signal agreement.
Other soldiers' faces wrinkled as they struggled with emotions while the name of each of the 23 victims was called, and a buddy saluted that soldier's rifle, boots and helmet.
The casualty toll was the highest for the division in a single incident since the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, Steele said.
Regimental commanders of the soldiers who were killed praised their valor in trying to rescue others even after they sustained severe burns.
"They truly have an unconditional love for their comrades," Lt. Col. Lloyd Austin said.