Five remembered

27 May 2003 | Sgt. Colin Wyers

A memorial service was held May 24 at Camp Babylon for five Marines who died after a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing crashed shortly after takeoff May 19 in the Shat Al Hillah Canal.

Dead are: Capt. Andrew D. Lamont, 32, San Diego; 1st Lt. Timothy L. Ryan, 30, St. Louis; Staff Sgt. Aaron D. White, 27, Oklahoma City; Sgt. Kirk Allen Straseskie, 23, of Beaver Dam, Wis.; Lance Cpl. Jason W. Moore, 21, San Diego.

"Some of you didn't know their names until two days ago," Lt. Col. Alan Sanders, 3rd MAW liaison officer to the First Marine Expeditionary Force, told those at the service, which included many who had participated in the recovery effort.  "Their friends aren't afraid of talking about them.  They're afraid of them not being remembered."

The helicopter and crew of four went down shortly before 4 p.m. while conducting a re-supply mission in support of civil military operations.

Recovery efforts began immediately after the crash, both to recover the deceased and to start an investigation into the cause of the incident.

"For us, the recovery has been a sad process because we lost four of our squadron mates," said Maj. Phil Grathwol, executive officer, Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 364, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.  "The Seabees, Air Force jumpers and Army divers are true professionals, and we couldn't have gotten them out without them."

First on the scene were Marines from B Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, including Straseskie, who entered the water in an attempt to rescue the crew.

"I can only assume that he saw or heard (the helicopter) come down," said 2nd Lt. David Cedarleaf platoon commander, 3rd Platoon, B Co., 1st Bn, 4th Mar.  "He was taking care of his Marines on that side (of the canal) with chow."

Straseskie began struggling in the water, unable to swim against the strong current.

"It was pretty damn strong," said 1st Lt. Dallas Shaw, executive officer, B Co., 1st Bn, 4th Mar.,  "I've been in 14 years, did Force Recon, combatant diving, and this was the strongest current I've ever been in."

Cedarleaf and Shaw had entered the water from the eastern bank, while Straseskie entered from the western bank.

"He was approaching the bird when we saw him," said Cedarleaf.  "I thought he was having trouble, so I diverted off and assisted him."

Iraqis from the nearby town of Jumjumah saw the crash and the rescue attempt, and gathered to deliver assistance.

Standing on the bank of the canal, still dripping wet from his efforts, Mazen Mohammed al Shibli remembered jumping into the water after seeing somebody struggling.

"All people here tried to leave the water, (because they) thought there was electricity in the water," said al Shibli.  "When they saw me jump in the water, they jumped after me."

Unable to reach the crew of the sunken helicopter, their attentions soon turned to Straseskie.

"People came here from the village to help save them," said al Shibli.  "We brought him over onto the bank."

Senior Chief Petty Officer Richard Moriarity, Senior Medical Department Representative, 9th Communications Battalion, I MEF, arrived on the scene to see al Shibli and Cedarleaf giving cardiopulmonary resuscitation to the Marine.  Straseski was taken to Shock Trauma Platoon 7 at Camp Babylon, where he was pronounced dead.

Marines from the First Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group, and Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 15, Task Force Charlie, I MEF Engineering Group, arrived to assist in the recovery efforts.

"There was a lot of tension," said Cpl. Veronica Leyva, I MHG administration chief, from Tucson, Ariz.  "There were pretty late nights where we were out until 10 or 11."

Other Iraqis continued to render assistance to the Marines at the scene, using their boats to take lines out to the wreckage to secure it until it could be removed.

"Some of them were working just as hard as we were," said Chief Petty Officer Carl Carder, from Gallatin, Miss., commander of A Company, NMCB-15.  "They were just a part of the team.  They knew we had a tragedy, and they were giving us a hand."

The wreck was anchored to vehicles on shore, using ropes and cables taken out to the craft by villagers from nearby Jumjumah, who provided boats to aid in the rescue effort.

On May 20, Air Force parajumpers arrived, who did the initial survey using scuba gear.  Later came Army divers, who mapped the high points of the waterway.  They were joined by Seabee divers from Underwater Construction Team 2, Task Force Charlie, and I MEG, who drove up from Ali Al Saleem Air Base, Kuwait, to render assistance.

"We left at (2 a.m.), and got here at (2 p.m.)," said Senior Chief John Green, UCT-2 master diver, from Alliance, Ohio.  "You have to watch from being overzealous.  The divers were tired, so at midnight I said we'd come back in the morning."

Using scuba equipment, Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Vollmer, an advanced underwater construction technician with UCT-2, made his first dive on the night of May 20.  He came back with a gear bag, a 9mm pistol and an M-16A2 service rifle.

"I talked to pilots, and they said (the crew was) right forward of (where the gear bag was)," said Vollmer. "I was anxious to get back down there."

The Seabee divers had brought surface air equipment with them, which enabled them to stay under for longer periods of time than possible with scuba.  The next morning, May 21, Vollmer went in using the surface air equipment, and recovered the crewmembers.

"It's a tragedy, but today was rewarding, because we were able to send our comrade Marines home," said Carder.