In a private moment outside a gray-hulled military aircraft in Westhampton Beach, grieving family members of Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa paused to greet the casket bearing his remains Thursday morning.
Moments before, the C-130 transport plane had arrived at the New York Air Force National Guard base at Gabreski Airport and soon after, thousands more Long Islanders paid their respects.
The hearse bearing Bonacasa’s remains passed by the stream of mourners stationed along roadsides and highway overpasses to salute the slain New York Air Force National Guard airman.
Bonacasa, 31, of Coram, was one of six American troops killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest as they were conducting a mission near Bagram airfield in Afghanistan five days before Christmas.
Before the hearse left the base Thursday, a half-dozen of Bonacasa’s fellow airmen in formal Air Force blues slowly descended the aircraft’s ramp bearing his flag-draped coffin as his wife, Deb, pulled their 5-year-old daughter Lilly close to her in the chilly air.
“This couldn’t have happened to a more popular, more likable guy,” said Sgt. Robert Marquez, a resident of upstate New Windsor and a close friend of Bonacasa from their service in the National Guard’s 105th Base Defense Squadron in upstate Newburg.
Marquez, who served with Bonacasa during two combat tours — in Balad, Iraq, about five years ago, and at Bagram two years later — was one of dozens of blue-jacketed members of Bonacasa’s 105th Airlift Wing who made their way to Long Island to formally greet his return home.
Many of them had been at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan on Wednesday where a funeral was offered for Staff Sgt. Joseph Lemm, an NYPD detective from West Harrison in Westchester County who also perished in the attack.
The wing’s commanding officer, Col. Timothy J. LaBarge, lauded Bonacasa during a 20-minute ceremony in an aircraft hangar at the Westhampton Beach National Guard base. Bonacasa had served there before transferring to the 105th Airlift Wing several years ago.
Bonacasa and Lemm were posthumously named honorary agents of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. It represented the first time in the agency’s 67-year history Air National Guard airmen received the honor, LaBarge said.
Citing a passage from the Korean War film “Bridges of Toko-Ri” that addressed the courage of airmen who go off to war, LaBarge asked “Where do we get such men?”
Then he continued, referring to the hometowns of two stateside military bases where Bonacasa has served on security details.
“The answer it turns out, is right in front of our noses,” LaBarge said, his voice thick with emotion. “It’s in places like Westhampton Beach and Newburgh, New York.”