By Lea Johnson
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — The First Amendment, Freedom of Religion, is one of the most treasured freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
To honor this freedom, the Peterson Air Force Base Chapel hosted a National Prayer Luncheon May 3 at The Club. The history of Peterson’s National Prayer Luncheon goes all the way back to the National Prayer Breakfast in 1942 when prayer groups were inaugurated by the Senate and the House of Representatives.
In 1953, members of the Senate and House prayer groups joined with President Dwight D. Eisenhower for the first Presidential Prayer Breakfast. Every year since, the meal has drawn together the president, members of his Cabinet, the Supreme Court, Congress and many others to seek divine guidance for our government and to reaffirm faith and dependence upon God.
This year, readings from different religious beliefs, including Buddhist, Christian, Hebrew, and Native American, were read during the luncheon.
Chaplain (Capt.) Onyema Okorie, said the military supports a culture of mutual respect for one another’s right to believe and express their own religious beliefs.
A special guest was in attendance at the luncheon to share his story. Jerry Schemmel is one of the radio voices for the Colorado Rockies baseball team in Denver and a survivor of a major tragedy.
On July 19, 1989, Schemmel boarded United Airlines Flight 232, originating in Denver and bound for Chicago. At the time, Schemmel was working for the Continental Basketball Association and was traveling with his boss that day. The 7 a.m. flight they were booked to be on was cancelled, leading them to be placed on flight 232.
“We were not supposed to be on that flight,” Schemmel said.
About halfway into the flight, there was an explosion in the back of the plane. “The first thing I thought was a bomb has gone off,” he said.
Schemmel said passengers soon learned the number two engine in the rear of the plane had exploded, taking out the entire hydraulic system. The plane needed to make an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa.
When the plane landed, it was traveling at twice the speed it should have been, was unable to turn properly and was not aligned correctly with the runway.
“You put all those things together and you’ve got a disaster,” Schemmel said. “We hit the ground and immediately inside the cabin, complete chaos. Within seconds after we hit down, people were thrown out of their chairs,” he said, adding that some people were still buckled to their chairs which were ripped from the floor by the impact.
The plane cart wheeled down the runway, broke into two pieces and landed in a cornfield across from the airport. Schemmel was one of 184 survivors; 112 were killed in the crash, including Schemmel’s boss.
“I look back at that experience and see for me the easy part. That crash was easy compared to what followed,” he said.
Schemmel was warned about the symptoms of post-traumatic stress — survivor’s guilt, anger, listlessness and depression — but never thought it would happen to him.
On the 10-month anniversary of the crash, Schemmel said he had experienced every symptom he was warned about, his marriage was hanging by a thread, and he didn’t know where to turn.
“I realized that I had to turn somewhere else. I closed my eyes and said a simple prayer,” he said.
It was a slow process, but Schemmel said at that moment he knew everything was going to be OK.
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Timothy Porter said it’s very timely that Schemmel’s story be shared with Airmen at Peterson. “The Air Force is emphasizing the importance of building mental, social, physical and spiritual strength so we can bounce back after certain circumstances,” he said. “It’s a privilege for us to have him come and share his life with us and his spiritual journey.”
Schemmel went on to say that everybody has tragedies happen to them in life, their own plane crash, but what happens isn’t as important as how you deal with what happens.
“We can become bitter or you can allow that event to make you better,” he said.