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Old 22 December 1999, 17:23
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Los Angeles Times
December 21, 1999
Pg. 10

Servicemen Killed In Crash Are Eulogized As Heroes

By Tony Perry, Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON -- In a solemn ceremony that brought tears to the eyes of Marines and surviving family members alike, the seven enlisted men who died in a helicopter crash this month were remembered Monday as "American heroes" who gladly accepted the risks of their profession.

"Theirs were lives of unselfishness, bravery and dedication," Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James L. Jones told the 1,400 people who attended a memorial service for the seven who died Dec. 9.

Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said, "I like what the chaplain said: 'These are the peacekeepers, these are the children of God.'"

As the families of the seven left the service amid a bagpiper's playing of "Amazing Grace," a child left fatherless by the crash could be heard to cry out, "Goodbye . . . ."

The service was held just hours after the Navy announced that it had located the last four bodies of those killed when the twin-rotor CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, crashed 14 miles off San Diego in 3,900 feet of water. Three bodies were recovered Saturday. Eleven men survived the mishap.

"I've asked the Marines of the 15th MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] to let their tears flow today so they can go on to the joy of what they do," said Sgt. Major Al McMichael, the senior enlisted man in the corps and an advisor to the commandant.

Six of the dead were posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps commendation medal by Danzig: Staff Sgt. Vincent Sebasteanski, Navy Petty Officer Jay Asis, Staff Sgt. David Galloway, Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Starling, Cpl. Mark Baca and Staff Sgt. William Dame.

The final Marine, Gunnery Sgt. James Paige, was awarded the meritorious service medal by President Clinton. Paige's medal was based on his 20 years' service and continued leadership as a helicopter crew chief, Marine officials said.

Jones said Paige may also be commended, at a later date, for actions in trying to save others aboard the sinking helicopter.

Lt. Col. Matthew D. Redfern, his voice breaking, remembered Paige as a Marine who always wanted to be "in the middle of the action," had survived the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and declined to use his seniority to avoid risky missions.

Paige was so dedicated to the corps, Redfern said, that he had given his 2-year-old daughter the middle name Marine.

Danzig noted that the seven died as they were in training for one of the Marine Corps' riskiest maneuvers: boarding a hostile ship on the high seas by "fast-roping" down from a hovering helicopter.

The accident occurred when one of the helicopter's rear wheels caught on a safety screen on the oiler Pecos and the big chopper tumbled into the sea, sinking within seconds.

Aboard the Sea Knight were four helicopter crewmen and 14 members of an elite reconnaissance unit, training for a six-month deployment in the Persian Gulf.

Danzig said there was bravery shown by SEALs, Special Warfare Command boat crewmen and Marines aboard the helicopter. "It's amazing that 11 survived, and I think one reason is the heroic actions of a number of personnel that day," he told reporters.

The seven left 10 children among them. Six of the men were married and the other, Starling, was engaged. His fiance sat with his parents at the memorial service. Each family was given a folded American flag.

"America and her families lost the very best this nation has to offer,'' said Col. Richard Zilmer. "There is oftentimes a steep price to pay for the blessings and security we enjoy as .Americans."

Jones said after the memorial, "In 33 years in the Marine Corps, in peace and war, I've been to quite a few of these memorials. They never get easier."

Danzig said it may take months to know why the helicopter became enmeshed in the safety net. He added, "We will take every possible step to make sure this particular series of events does not occur" again.
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