‘We Love You’: Hundreds of Airmen Pay Tribute To SrA Roger Fortson at Hurlburt

To become an aerial gunner on the AC-130 gunship, Airmen have to pass through a grueling series of flights where more experienced gunners pepper them with questions about the weapons systems they will have to operate under the stress of combat. So evaluators were surprised a few years ago when, after finishing his preflight duties, a student took a fire extinguisher off the aircraft wall and handed it to one of them. 

“You’re going to need this,” the student said. “Because I’m going to be on fire answering these questions today.”

The student was Senior Airman Roger Fortson, a special missions aviator with the 73rd and 4th Special Operations Squadrons at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

Fortson was killed May 3 by a sheriff’s deputy, who fired at him while responding to a reported disturbance call at an apartment complex at Fort Walton Beach, Fla. The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s deputy shot the 23-year-old Fortson six times as the Airman opened his apartment door while holding his legally-owned handgun at his side, pointing downwards. At a May 16 press conference, a lawyer for Fortson’s family, Ben Crump, said the deputy had been called to the wrong apartment.

The shooting has sparked grief and outrage among many Air Force members and led to discussions about race, policing, and gun rights. Airmen around the world worked together on social media to organize remembrances and tributes to Fortson, who many praised as a solid Airman and a great friend.  

Respect and grief were on equal display May 20, when hundreds of Airmen gathered with Fortson’s extended family at Hurlburt for a memorial service in a packed hangar, as another 600 people watched the event live-streamed on Facebook. One Airman audibly held back tears while singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the start of the ceremony, which came three days after hundreds of Airmen joined their fallen wingman’s friends and family for a church near Atlanta, Ga., Fortson’s hometown.

At the church service, Airmen lined up to pay respects at Fortson’s coffin, and the head of Air Force Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Tony D. Bauernfeind, knelt and presented a folded American flag to Fortson’s mother, Chantemekki.

At a May 20 press conference, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the military’s highest-ranking Airman and service member, expressed his “sincere condolences” to Fortson’s family. While the case is under investigation, Brown said he “would hope and expect” that service members and their families would all be safe in their homes and the various communities they live in around the country.

roger fortson
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, presents an American flag to Chantemekki Fortson during the celebration of life for Senior Airman Roger Fortson on May 17, 2024, at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest, Georgia. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ryan Conroy)

At Hurlburt, Airmen described Fortson as a man overflowing with confidence, competence, and kindness. Senior Airman Collin Courtney, who shared the fire extinguisher story at the service, is a fellow special missions aviator who trained and deployed with Fortson.

“It could be 125 degrees pre-flighting a plane in the sun, or maybe a really hard loss to Roger in a game of cards,” Courtney said. “Rod [Roger’s nickname] would always look at you and hit you with his famous one-liner: ‘Hey, that’s showbiz, baby.’ And you couldn’t help but crack a smile and laugh.”

AC-130 pilot Capt. Malcom Lee recalled an experienced tech sergeant telling him that Fortson “was confident, almost cocky, but he was beyond his commensurate performance level.”

At one point, Fortson told an evaluator gunner “‘Sir, there is no question you can ask me that I don’t know the answer to,’” Lee recalled from one temporary duty travel (TDY). 

“Now, if you know the gunship community, that’s an extremely bold statement coming from a student gunner,” Lee said. “But Roger was prepared and knowledgeable. … Roger showed up and crushed that TDY.”

Outside of work, Fortson’s comrades described the 23-year-old as someone who got along with anyone from any walk of life. 

“While out on the town, he kept us laughing nonstop,” Lee said. “Funny thing: He wasn’t trying to be funny. He was just being himself. Roger had charisma, or, as he would say, ‘the riz.’

“Loving Airman Fortson was an easy thing to do,” Lee added, holding back tears, “because he loved first.”

Fortson was also fiercely loyal to his family; wingmen recalled him ordering DoorDash food deliveries for his family back in Georgia while he was deployed to the Middle East, FaceTiming his younger siblings, and flying back from Kuwait to take care of his mother even though he was still recovering from emergency surgery himself. 

“Roger came to us as a great man,” Lt. Col. Joshua Stoley, chaplain for the 1st Special Operations Wing, told Fortson’s mother, echoing comments made earlier by the wing commander, Col. Patrick Dierig. “This is not something the Air Force did, we can’t take credit for that,” he said. “He came to us as a great man because you raised him to be a great man.”

Capt. Malcom Lee, left, and Senior Airman Collin Courtney give speeches about their friend and colleague, Senior Airman Roger Fortson, for a memorial service honoring Fortson at Hulrburt Field, Fla. on May 20, 2024. (Screenshot via Facebook/Hurlburt Field)


Airmen at the service also directly addressed the events that led to Fortson’s death.

“When I received the call about Roger’s incident, I immediately responded with ‘I trust Roger,’” Lee said. “I trusted that this had to be a misunderstanding, because I knew Roger’s character. The Roger I knew was level-headed, respectable, and trustworthy. He was one of our best.” 

Lt. Col. Kaelin Thistlewood, head of the 4th Special Operations Squadron, added that “we must acknowledge the complexity of the circumstances surrounding his passing,” and that Fortson was “a Black man … tragically lost in gunfire involving law enforcement.

“This reality highlights broader societal challenges,” Thistlewood said. “I note this fact only to acknowledge that this aspect of his passing weighs heavily on the hearts and minds of many.”

The lieutenant colonel also noted that while gunship aviation is “a profession inherently characterized by its violence,” it is also one where control matters.

“We understand the gravity of dynamic situations. … It is this understanding that gives us a unique perspective,” he said. “We recognize that true valor is not solely measured by the ability to take a life, but rather by the restraint exercised, until absolutely necessary.”

Their rigorous training and adherence to “the highest standards of professional discernment,” allows gunship Airmen to “set the standard for excellence not only in our technical prowess, but also in our moral compass, which guides everything we do.”

Others at Fortson’s funeral last week spoke more bluntly.

“In America, before people see you as a veteran—as an Airman in the United States Air Force—they’ll see you as a Black man,” said Rev. Jamal Bryant, according to the Associated Press. “We’ve got to call it as it is—Roger died of murder. He died of stone cold murder. And somebody has got to be held accountable.”

Fortson’s death is being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Footage from the deputy’s body camera released by the sheriff’s office shows the deputy at first knocking on the door and identifying himself while standing to the side. He then knocked again, and when Fortson opened the door, the deputy told Fortson to step back before shooting him six times.

As the investigation continues, Airmen at Hurlburt are adjusting to life without their comrade. Courtney recalled Lee saying “’we often don’t know why things happen, but God wanted his son home, and Roger’s at peace in paradise now.’”

“So to Rod,” Courtney said, “until we can someday have a beer over a game of cornhole in paradise, just know your gunship family is down here missing you, and we love you.” 

Hundreds of Airmen gathered with Senior Airman Roger Fortson’s extended family at Hurlburt Field, Fla. for a memorial service in a packed hangar on May 20, 2024. (Screenshot via Facebook/Hurlburt Field)