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Bad News Is Familiar In Hawaii Community

Many on Copter From Kaneohe Bay

By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page A20

KAILUA, Hawaii, Jan. 27 -- Two weeks ago, this oceanside military community held a memorial service for 10 of its Marines killed in Iraq. They were among 18 Marines from the base on Kaneohe Bay who died in the war, seven of them struck down on a single bloody October day in Fallujah.

So when the first reports arrived here late Wednesday that most of the 31 troops killed in a helicopter crash that morning -- the deadliest single incident for the United States since the war began -- were from Kaneohe Bay, the community seemed to take it as a grim matter of fact: the norm, just worse than usual.

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"I see casualty reports come in all the time," said Staff Sgt. James Lawless, who works in an office at nearby Camp Smith that processes overseas reports. Since the war began, he said, he has lost six friends. His reaction to the latest news: "I'm sad they go into combat and get killed. But I've pretty much become null to that."

The CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter went down in a sandstorm near Rutbah, a town 220 miles west of Baghdad. A military statement said the helicopter was conducting "security and stabilization operations" when it crashed.

Pentagon officials said it could take weeks for experts to examine the wreckage and flight data. Military officials said they believe the sandstorm was the most likely cause, but they have not ruled out a mechanical malfunction or enemy fire.

Because the helicopter was flying late at night, the pilots and crew were probably wearing night-vision goggles. During a sandstorm, the goggles could have caused the pilots to become instantly disoriented, said retired Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., whose last command was the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, the unit of the helicopter's four crew members at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego.

"Anything like grains of sand or moisture really contaminates the view you have, it distorts it and causes you to not be able to see," Bolden said. "Sandstorms are bad no matter what time it is. It's like flying into a cloud. Even if it's daytime and you're not on goggles, you can lose your sense of what's up and what's down, and you have to resort to relying on your instruments."

Officials confirmed Thursday afternoon that 26 of the Marines were stationed at Kaneohe Bay, members of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. A sailor, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class John D. House, 28, of Ventura, Calif., also was killed, the Defense Department said.

Their unit had left Hawaii in August for a routine deployment to Okinawa, Japan, and had been sent to Iraq in September.

Capt. Christopher Perrine, the base spokesman at Kaneohe Bay, said officials were still visiting the victims' families to deliver the news.

Hawaii's separation from the mainland and its concentration of representatives from every branch of the services has created a close-knit military and military-civilian community. Young service members often volunteer among the civilian population, and hotels and restaurants often give breaks to service members on liberty. Many members of the military choose to raise their families here, or return after they retire.

"There's a concept here in Hawaii called 'ohana' -- 'family' -- and it resonates even with those who are not from here," said retired Lt. Gen. H.C. "Hank" Stackpole, the former commander of the Marines' Pacific forces who now oversees a think tank in Waikiki.

In the case of the helicopter crash, he said, "it's like 31 brothers in one family died. . . . By all likelihood, that crew was part of a unit -- they worked together, they played together and they died together."

Around Kailua, a quintessential beach town of 40,000 where puka-shell necklaces are as common as buzz-cut hairstyles, residents said they were bracing for the list of victims' names.


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