Immortalising a Fallen Hero

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The officer's widow, Dr. Justina Gbenekannu (1st right) Iinaugurating the quarters built in her husband's honour

Chiemelie Ezeobi writes on the recent effort of the Nigerian Air Force to immortalise one of its fallen heroes who died in the cockpit while providing logistics support to troops fighting the Boko Haram terrorist group

The 10th stanza of the National Anthem reads thus; ‘the labours of our heroes past, shall never be in vain’ and borrowing a leaf from that, the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) recently immortalised one of its fallen heroes, Squadron Leader Promise Lenton Gbenekannu, a pilot who died in the cockpit while providing logistics support to troops fighting terrorist group, Boko Haram.

Born on February 24, 1981, Gbenekannu enlisted into the military on September 24, 2000 as he studied at the Nigeria Defence Academy, Kaduna, and was commissioned on September 24, 2005. On May 18, 2016, Gbenekannu, aged 35, suffered a cardiac arrest and died while piloting one of the C-130 aircrafts in Borno State.

Despite the sudden seizure, the young officer was said to have successfully landed the logistics aircraft before he passed on. It was in recognition of his sacrifice and diligence that the Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, recently named a newly constructed six by three block of flats built by Omron Construction owned by Jameel Olatunji, inside the Sam Ethnan Air Force Base in Ikeja, Lagos, after him.

Although the Nigerian Armed Forces honours its fallen heroes, who died in the line of duty while fighting to ensure the territorial integrity of the nation, whether on land, air or water is not breached or tampered with, on the Armed Forces Remembrance Day annually on January 15, it did not stop the Air Force from deciding to honour one of their own.

Present at the inauguration ceremony were the family of the late C-130H aircraft pilot as well as senior officers, both serving and retired.

A widow’s pride

For the widow, although she would have wished him to still be alive, she said she was happy that he died fulfilled in his quest to serve his nation. The couple were blessed with two kids; a boy and a girl.

The officer’s widow, Dr. Justina Gbenekannu, who was at the event, said she was happy her husband gave his all to the service of the nation, adding that although his life was cut short, it was a fulfilled one as he enjoyed serving his nation.

While thanking the NAF for honouring him she said: “Life has not been the same after the passing of my husband. It has not been easy coping with two kids alone. Sometimes, it gets me down emotionally.

“But I am happy because he led a fulfilled life and as short as it was, his name has been written in the annals of the NAF. If the dead could see, I know that he would be happy wherever he is because of the honour.

“The NAF is proud of him and we, his family members are also proud of him. He died in active service. We were married for two years and four months. Those were the most favourable moments of my life.

“He was a humble man. He was a husband and a father. There are times I wished he was here to continue playing his role as a father to our kids. Our kids will miss him because they won’t be able to say exactly how he was because they are still very young.”

The Air Chief’s eulogy

The Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, who was represented at the inauguration by the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) Logistics Command, Air Vice Marshal (AVM) Ibrahim Yahaya, said the project formed part of infrastructural renewal programme of the NAF, which was initiated in all bases for the good of personnel and their families.

He said, “These projects form part of the infrastructural renewal programme of this administration. They were initiated in all NAF bases to ensure the provision of a conducive atmosphere for personnel at their various work places and homes in line with the change agenda of the President and Commander-in-Chief.

“Accordingly, providing decent housing for officers, airmen and airwomen remain one of the first priorities of our policy thrust towards ensuring that NAF personnel and their families live in befitting accommodations and are better positioned to respond to various exigencies of the service.

“The project has been named after one of our fallen heroes who died onboard the C-130 aircraft while on a logistics support mission for troops fighting insurgency and terrorism in the North-east.

“The fallen hero was a C-130 pilot Squadron Leader Promise Leton Gbenekannu. The Sam Ethnan Air Force Base being one of the foremost bases in the NAF and the home of logistics command, is critical to the successful conduct of NAF operations.

“It is therefore, only appropriate that such a base received a commensurate attention in terms of the provision of facilities for the general well-being of the personnel and their families.

“We have embarked on the construction of new quarters, as well as renovation of dilapidated buildings to address the infrastructural decay of the past.

“Arrangements are in top gear to address many other areas of infrastructural deficit including the renovation of more accommodation facility, as well as rehabilitation of roads and drainage systems in the base.

“It is hoped that this would create enabling environment and motivation for personnel to discharge their duties effectively and efficiently.”

Commending President Muhammadu Buhari for his support to the military, Abubakar recalled the recent addition of new platforms to its fleet, adding that more were being expected to its fleet and the rehabilitation of old ones.

He said, “This has enhanced our ability to conduct counter insurgency operations and also contend with other emerging security challenges across the country

“The effort of government at adequately equipping the services will enhance professionalism and facilitate effective performance of our constitutional roles

“Be assured that we will continue to do our utmost to meet our statutory responsibility of defending the territorial integrity of the nation whether acting singularly or in concert with other security agencies.”

To his personnel he said, “We must sustain our efforts to reposition the NAF into a highly professional and disciplined force for effective, efficient and timely employment of air power in response to Nigeria’s national security imperatives.

“We acknowledge that the human being is the most important in every organisation and equipping them appropriately is central to the achievement of success in securing Nigeria’s air space

“We therefore remain committed to continuous upgrading, reforming and building of new facilities as part of capacity development drive in all NAF units.”

Earlier, the Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) Logistics Command, AVM Ibukun Ojeyemi, who delivered the welcome address on behalf of the AOC of the logistics command, noted that the project was part of the value additions that were continuously being made by the current NAF administration in line with the mantra of the CAS.

He said, “There is no finishing line in the race to add value to the society. Three other projects are ongoing to further meet the growing accommodation need occasioned by the expansion of the service in response to national security imperatives.

“In recent times, the morale of NAF personnel has been increasingly getting higher as the perennial accommodation challenge within the NAF gets gradually resolved, all thanks to the timely provision of funds by the federal government and the focused leadership of the CAS.”

NAF standard for fallen heroes

While one of the challenges families of fallen heroes face is often abandonment by the government and being asked to leave the barracks, given that their loved ones are dead, this present administration has however moved away from the norm by extending a hand of fellowship to the families, even after the federal government has fulfilled its statutory duties for families of fallen heroes.

For the NAF under Abubakar, one of its core derivatives has always been welfare-driven and as such, they have provided personal accommodations for widows of their fallen heroes. In making provision for this, the NAF dedicated one of the sections of the estates to their widows and their respective families.

As gathered by THISDAY, the force does not let its fallen heroes down as welfare measures for the families they left behind are not toyed with.

It was gathered that aside the memorial, there are statutory provisions by the federal government for families of fallen heroes and all that has been done for them. As at now, the welfare programme of the NAF has improved for people we have lost their lives in the North-east or any form of internal security operations in Nigeria.

The NAF now, apart from what government gives as various welfare programmes, provide personnel houses for these people to retire in. However, the statutory provision is that when a personnel dies and served up to 10 years in the Armed Forces, the person is entitled to one.

However, what that person gets as pension is a function of the rank and the last salary collected and this depends on how long one has served. It is safe to say that it’s on percentage basis.

It was also gathered that once a personnel has served up to 10 years and died in the service, the person gets bulk pension. The bulk pension is collected because they are dead as pension is supposed to be when one retires and is collected till death.

But for any personnel who dies on duty, whether officers of airmen, the family collects five years bulk pension and that is where it stops. But if they retire and spends two or three years before they die, the family only gets the balance of the five years.

Given that fallen soldiers have by their commitment and sacrifice enrolled themselves on our list of national heroes, it is imperative that measures be put in place so that their loved ones take solace that they died serving their country.