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Black Hawk crash ripples through Camp Lejeune community

Military personnel wade in the water and search on the beach under heavy fog at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., on Wednesday for the wreckage of a military helicopter that crashed with 11 Marines and soldiers aboard. The helicopter went down late Tuesday evening. A Pentagon official says the 11 servicemen are presumed dead.
Military personnel wade in the water and search on the beach under heavy fog at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., on Wednesday for the wreckage of a military helicopter that crashed with 11 Marines and soldiers aboard. The helicopter went down late Tuesday evening. A Pentagon official says the 11 servicemen are presumed dead. AP

The Pentagon on Wednesday had not released the names of the seven Camp Lejeune Marines and four Louisiana Army National Guardsmen who were aboard a helicopter that crashed Tuesday off the coast of Florida, but Marine wife Mickayla Volker of Jacksonville knew who they were.

“They’re our husbands or brothers or sisters or fathers or significant others,” she said. In a military community, “we’re all in the same boat.”

Though the military said it was still conducting a search-and-rescue effort, the 11 are feared dead after the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter they were flying in during a nighttime training exercise crashed around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. Early Wednesday morning, search crews began to find debris from the helicopter in the Santa Rosa Sound, southwest of Pensacola. In the afternoon, searchers reported finding human remains.

The Marines were from the Marine Corps Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune. The soldiers were from a National Guard unit based in Hammond, La.

Sgt. Lia Gamero, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune, said the Marines had been in the Florida Panhandle since Sunday and were scheduled to stay a week. They were doing “insertion and extraction missions,” she said, practicing pulling cargo into the helicopter and dropping it off.

The training was in the area of a long stretch of beach the military has owned since World War II and uses for test missions.

Marine officials haven’t said what caused the crash, and President Barack Obama has said there will be an investigation. A second helicopter on the mission turned back because of dense fog.

The Louisiana soldiers on the downed Black Hawk had served multiple tours in Iraq and helped with humanitarian missions after hurricanes and the BP oil spill, The Associated Press reported.

The seven Lejeune Marines with them were part of an elite group who, like the Navy SEALs, the U.S. military has increasingly relied on since 9/11 to handle sensitive assignments.

Such Special Ops forces are autonomous and trained to adapt to the needs of a situation, said Tim Nichols, a professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

Seven such highly trained Marines are enough to form a team that could train 200 to 300 foreign forces, Nichols said. For that many to die in a single aircraft crash, he said, would be a profound loss.

Danger in an instant

To those outside a military community, the downed Black Hawk may be a jarring reminder of the near constant dangers of military service and training, even with combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan officially over and the armed forces drawing down. As the military uses the respite from long and frequent deployments to refocus on training, troops will continue to be hurt or killed in accidents as they sharpen their skills through exercises that mimic as closely as possible the situations in which they might be called to fight.

It can happen in an instant, said Lance Cpl. Tyler Matthew Burkhardt, who operates and works on tanks at Camp Lejeune. Last year, during training, his left hand was crushed in an accident that happened while he was loading a round in a gun during an exercise. It’s fine now, but the injury made him realize – again – that a Marine doesn’t have to deploy to get hurt.

“It’s not something you think about when you join,” said Burkhardt, 21, who volunteered three years ago. “You know, you’re young, and you just think, ‘I want to make somebody proud and do something good and serve my country.’”

Burkhardt sports a brand new ring on that hand; he got married two days ago. When he heard about the crash, he thought of his wife and others in his family, and how hard it would be for them to get news such as that.

Mickayla Volker thinks about families getting that kind of news. In the past several weeks, she said, she knows of two Marines who have died: one in a car crash and one in a suicide.

“Even if the news doesn’t get hold of it, it’s always there,” she said.

Her own husband is a combat engineer who helps build things but also helps tear things down, using explosives. “I try not to think about it,” she said.

Ripples of sorrow

When there is a death – or a large loss like Tuesday’s – ripples are felt throughout a town like Jacksonville. If you aren’t in the military, or don’t have a relative who is serving or retired, you have neighbors who do or you work at a place that does business with someone in uniform.

Volker works at Shirley’s Professional Alterations & Embroidery on Lejeune Boulevard, a few miles from the base’s main gate, where a dozen employees make a living taking care of Marines’ clothes. In a room full of sewing machines, workers take uniforms in, or let them out, or shorten them. When a Marine gets promoted, they sew on more stripes. When one gets injured and loses a leg, someone at Shirley’s can alter the uniform to accommodate a stump or a prosthetic limb.

When a Marine dies, Shirley’s might make adjustments to the dress uniform for the burial.

“You may not know all their names,” said Judy Sanders, who has worked at the shop for two decades. “But you kind of see a little bit of what they’re going through.”

‘Best of the best’

Staff Sgt. Adam Zurn came by the shop on Wednesday to pick up a couple of uniform shirts, one of his last stops before leaving Lejeune for a new post in Texas, where he’ll work as a recruiter. Zurn has worked for several years in a support unit of the Special Operations School at Lejeune.

Wednesday morning, he said, Marines in his office were searching the news for details about the Black Hawk crash, partly because they might know the Marines involved.

But even if they didn’t, he said, they know what a loss the families – and the Marine Corps – have suffered.

“A loss is a loss,” he said. But the Marine Corps Special Forces, “They’re the best of the best.”

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