In the fall of 2011, Sgt. Rachelle Dutton was a medic with an Oklahoma National Guard military police unit in the Lahgam province of Afghanistan about an hour and half from the border with Pakistan.
On Oct. 30 – her 23rd birthday – her rapid response unit was alerted to a burning car near their outpost. They were scrambled to investigate, but found only a burning pile of trash.
As they drove back there was a blinding flash. A roadside bomb hit Dutton’s armored vehicle. It wasn’t a direct hit, but violent enough to injure all four soldiers in the vehicle, one severely. Then insurgents opened fire on them from a mountainside.
“It was an ambush,” said Dutton, now in the South Carolina Army National Guard. An ordnance disposal unit “told us the next day that the bomb was about 120 lbs of homemade explosive and that if we had reached it one to two seconds earlier, everyone in my truck would probably not be living today. I feel like it was the luckiest day of my life.”
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On July 4, Dutton will be among about a dozen service members and veterans who will fly in the sixth annual Salute from the Shore, a giant coastal shout out along South Carolina’s shoreline. And this year, after a two-year hiatus because of budget cuts, two F-16 Fighting Falcon jets from the 79th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base will fly the more than 300-mile length of the state from Cherry Grove to Hilton Head.
They will be joined by about 20 vintage aircraft on different legs of the flight, including such World War II classics as the F4U Corsair and a P-51 Mustang fighter planes. Also, Pat Waters, grandson of legendary World War II Gen. George Patton and a Mount Pleasant resident, will be piloting a Varga trainer.
“Gosh, I’m looking forward to it,” said Waters, a Navy veteran who started flying when he was 15. “The excitement is seeing all those great Americans waving flags.”
‘We just wanted to say thanks’
The genesis of the event occurred seven years ago when four Columbia men were enjoying themselves at Litchfield Beach on the Fourth of July. The discussion turned to the people who made it possible for them to take a day off, hang out and have fun – the troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While neither military men nor aviation enthusiasts, the four Columbians – Andy Folsom and his father, John, attorney Toddy Smith and his son, Cam – decided the best way to recognize the troops at the beach was with a flyover. It would remind people what the Fourth of July is meant to commemorate and offer a way for everyone down below to say thank you to the troops.
“We just wanted to celebrate the freedom they give us and say thanks,” Andy Folsom, the event’s president, said.
But it wouldn’t just be any flyover but a flight over every beach in South Carolina, from the North Carolina line to the Georgia border. The intent was to have something patriotic that everyone in South Carolina could be part of, Folsom said.
The flyover allows thousands of South Carolinians – from the Grand Strand to the Lowcountry – to wave American flags and say thank you to the troops. The event is filmed and made available to troops through social media and military websites.
Major sponsors for the event are SGE&G, First Citizens bank, Colliers International commercial real estate brokers, Waccamaw Land &Timber, PGBA and BVA-viation, Inc.
“It’s certainly a great event,” said Stephanie Jones, SCE&G’s supervisor of community affairs. “We have so many employees that have served or are currently serving so it’s truly an honor for us to support Salute from the Shore. It’s s a great way to honor those who protect our freedom each day.”
‘Don’t be late’
Today’s flyover is the sixth time the event has been held. In the past, the group has hosted World War II and other veterans.
“But this year we wanted to focus on active-duty folks who served in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Folsom said.
The first flyover in 2010 was by a giant C-17 transport plane from Joint Base Charleston. In 2011, the group tapped Shaw for the F-16 jets. But in 2013 and 2014, budget cuts after 13 years of war caused the Air Force, Navy and Marines to cancel all flyovers, from local events like the Shaw Air Expo to the Super Bowl.
The flights were revived this year after military leaders reassessed their value in public appreciation and recruiting.
“Our airmen here at Shaw are inspired by the service of those who preceded them, and they appreciate the opportunity to inspire future generations by participating in this year's event,” said Col. Stephen F. Jost, commander of the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw. “We are honored to be a part of thanking our military members, past and present, for their service and sacrifices in the defense of our great nation."
The Shaw jets are scheduled to leave Cherry Grove at 1 p.m. and arrive over Hilton Head at 1:45 p.m. They will be flying at their slowest speeds of 300 to 350 mph, Folsom said.
“So don’t be late or you’ll miss them,” he said.
Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.
If you’re going
Salute from the Shore
What: Flyover of Shaw F-16 jets, vintage aircraft
When: July 4
Where: Jets leave N.C. border at 1 p.m., reach Hilton Head at 1:45 p.m.
Why: To thank Iraq and Afghanistan vets