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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 11:26 a.m., Thursday, January 27, 2005

27 Hawai'i troops killed in Iraq crash

 •  Chart (opens in a new window): Troops die in sandstorm crash
 •  Share your condolences
 •  Community stunned by loss of 'such great guys'
 •  Congressional delegation shares grief
 •  Town awaits any word on 'our military'
 •  Kid brother eulogizes fallen soldier
 •  Grief spreads out into the community
 •  CH-53E copter a demanding craft
 •  Crash called most deadly since 1968
 •  Hitting sandstorm likened to ambush

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Twenty-six Marines and one Navy medic based in Hawai'i were killed in the crash of a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter in western Iraq yesterday, leaving families here desperately scrambling to contact deployed spouses while reeling from the latest stunning loss.

Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson, who's in charge of Marines in the Pacific, said sympathies go out to survivors of "all these brave Marines."

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Of the 31 who died in the crash near Rutbah in Anbar province, 26 were Marines from Kane'ohe. The Ventura County Star identified the Pearl Harbor Navy medic as John Daniel House. Four of the dead Marines were crew members based in California.

Previous reports said 27 Hawai'i-based Marines were among the dead. That number was adjusted to 26 this morning.

"It's just hard to accept these things, to be honest," said Cara Dennis, whose husband, Sgt. Jeremy Dennis, with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, was in Fallujah. "This whole war, I've just had enough. I'm not the only one who feels that way."

Dennis said she was told 10 of the Marines from Kane'ohe Bay killed in the crash were married.

Insignia of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Division
"They said all on-Island notifications had been made, and I haven't been notified, so I'm assuming that my husband is all right," Dennis said. "I'm a wife and a mother. Maybe I'm in my own little survival mode right now. It's just hard to believe, and I don't know any of the names yet. In a couple of days, when I find out who everyone is, I'll probably be (affected more)."

Capt. Chris Perrine, a Marine Corps Base Hawai'i spokesman, said yesterday afternoon all of the families had not been notified.

"Until they do, there's nothing that we can put out," he said.

The parents of Cpl. Sean Kelly, 23, of Pitman, N.J., told WPVI-TV in Philadelphia that their son was killed in the crash. Alexander and Lynn Kelly said he was serving with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, and was due to leave Iraq for Kuwait on Feb. 7.

The chopper that crashed in Iraq yesterday was a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter, similar to these seen at Marine Corps Base Hawai'i.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Marine Lance Cpl. Jonathan Edward Etterling, 22, of Wheelersburg, Ohio, who was based at Kane'ohe Bay, also was among those killed, his family said.

Another Marine killed, Lance Cpl. Tony Hernandez, 22, was based at Camp Pendleton, his parents told a San Antonio TV station. The didn't know his unit.

About 1,000 Hawai'i Marines with 1/3 landed in Iraq in September with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit out of Okinawa, Japan. An aviation combat element of CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters out of Kane'ohe Bay from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265 (Reinforced) was sent to western Iraq, and has ferried Marines taking part in a raid near Qaim.

Eight Marines with 1/3 were killed in a suicide car bomb attack on Oct. 30 in Fallujah. Ten other Marines with the Hawai'i-based unit also had been killed in Iraq before yesterday's helicopter crash — many in intense fighting in Fallujah. Four Marines and two soldiers were killed elsewhere yesterday, making it the deadliest day for the U.S. military since the war began in March 2003.

The last time Carol Armstead heard from her husband, John, a 39-year-old first sergeant with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, was several days ago.

Worst losses for U.S. troops in Iraq

Deadliest reported incidents for American troops in Iraq:

• Jan. 26, 2005: A U.S. CH-53E transport helicopter crashes in bad weather in Iraq's western desert, killing 30 Marines and one Navy corpsman.

• Nov. 15, 2003: Two Black Hawk helicopters collide while trying to avoid ground fire in Mosul, killing 17 U.S. troops and wounding five.

• Nov. 2, 2003: A Chinook transport helicopter is shot down by a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile near Fallujah, killing 16 American soldiers and wounding 26.

• Dec. 21, 2004: A suicide bomb attack at a mess tent in a base near Mosul kills 22 people, including 14 U.S. soldiers.

• March 23, 2003: Eleven U.S. troops killed in an ambush of a 507th Maintenance Company convoy in Nasiriyah; Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch and six others are captured.

Source: Associated Press

"From which company?" Armstead asked in a rush after learning that Hawai'i Marines had been killed. She had been woken up at 1 a.m. by her sister, but believed like other families here that the crash only involved Camp Pendleton Marines. Armstead grew up in the Waimanalo area.

Her husband and other Hawai'i Marines "were moving from (Fallujah) to help with the elections, so that's what concerns me so much about the chopper crash, because they were transporting people."

The three crew members killed were from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego.

The cause of the 1:20 a.m. crash wasn't immediately clear, though there was bad weather in the area. Satellite photos showed sandstorms in the area. A second helicopter flying nearby reported no hostile fire.

The crash took place near Rutbah, near a desert corner of Iraq that touches the Syrian and Jordanian borders and has been a crossing point for foreign fighters entering Iraq.

"We don't believe that there were any survivors ... weather was bad. We don't know of any enemy action," said Gen. John Abizaid, who heads up U.S. Central Command and is responsible for the Middle East. "It was a routine mission in support of the elections. That's all I know. I think it's a dangerous environment that we operate in in Iraq; we all understand that."

Retired Army Gen. Fred C. Weyand, who took 25th Infantry Division soldiers to Vietnam in 1965 and lives on O'ahu, said with the crash presumably due to bad weather and an accident, "it makes it doubly difficult for me because it tells me it probably could have been avoided by extra caution. But who knows, maybe it was an absolutely must-do mission."

Weyand said such single-case losses haven't been seen since the Vietnam War.

"I'm sure we had horrendous accidental deaths in Vietnam, but I just can't recall any of that magnitude," Weyand said. "We certainly had more than that killed in combat on one day."

Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson, who's in charge of about 74,000 Marines in the Pacific, yesterday said at the Kane'ohe Bay base that as new information is received, it will be released.

"Our sympathies now go with the families and the survivors of all these brave Marines that were lost in this incident," said Gregson, who declined to confirm that any of the dead Marines are from Hawai'i.

President Bush also offered condolences, saying the tragic helicopter accident "is a reminder of the risks inherent in military operations. We mourn the loss of life. But I am convinced we're doing the right thing by helping Iraq become a free country."

Advertiser news services contributed to this report. Reach William Cole at 525-5459 or at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.