The body of fallen U.S. Air Force member Martin Gonzales was returned to South Florida on Tuesday.
Miami-Dade County and the military gave Master Sgt. Gonzales a hero's welcome. His body was flown from Colombia, where he was killed during an anti-drug mission, to Miami International Airport.
Gonzales, 39, two American defense contractors and a member of the Panamanian military were killed when their plane crashed near the Panamanian border Oct. 5, according to U.S. Southern Command in Doral. Two survivors were in stable condition after they were rescued from crash site by the Colombian military, officials said.
Gonzales’ family waited more than two weeks for him to return home.
In addition to the terrible news earlier this month that he was killed in Latin America, the family was also a victim of the government shutdown, as NBC 6 reported that Gonzales’ death benefits could be placed on hold. The shutdown temporarily put his family in position not to receive the normally automatic $100,000 payout that goes to military families to cover travel and funeral expenses.
“As a veteran I could not foresee how something like this could happen during any type of shutdown or anything else,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, who directs the commission’s contact with the military.
“Obviously, myself and many others are now going to be asking questions,” Diaz said.
The situation of the Gonzales family and other military families ignited outrage from the public and members of Congress. Lawmakers took action restoring the benefits in the budget and Southcom in Doral, where Gonzales was official assigned, said on Tuesday that his wife and children will receive everything the government allows.
"We are taking very good care of his family. They received all of their benefits on time and we are doing everything we can to provide for their needs,” said Col. Greg Julian of U.S. Southern Command.
On Tuesday Gonzales’ wife Michelle and two children watched as his coffin was carried by the Air Force Honor Guard. Gonzales was in an airplane that included members of the Colombian government, keeping tabs on drug operations, when the plane went down.
“When we're operating on other partner nations we have host nation personnel on board to help communicate when we detect drug runners,” Julian said.
The military said Gonzales gave his life trying to keep drugs off the streets of South Florida – a common entry point.
Gonzales' wife is a Miami-Dade public school teacher, and the school board may also have a program to honor Gonzales for his service.
“We are overwhelmed with emotion and very grateful for the love and support in providing such an honorable way of welcoming Martin home,” the family said in a statement, asking people to keep all of them in their thoughts and prayers.
“Martin is an American hero and he died doing what he loved best, serving his country,” his family said.