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02-22-06, 04:51 AM
Air station mourns Djibouti losses
February 22,2006

Aircraft buzzed the sky above Jacksonville as they always do, but it was no regular day.

Marines stationed at New River Air Station returned to work Tuesday from a holiday weekend that began in tragedy. On Friday, two New River-based helicopters crashed off the coast of Djibouti, killing eight locally based Marines and two airmen.

While Jacksonville is no stranger to casualties of war, every loss still remains shocking to the Marines, retirees and family members who live here.

"Tragic," said Mark Thoman, a retired Marine pilot who now works as an MV-22 Osprey simulator instructor aboard the air station. "Really, really tragic. Every fellow that passed away has a story behind him, has a family. There will be some large holes in people's lives without those guys around. Your heart goes out to the families that have to endure that kind of a loss.

"As I pilot, I wonder, 'What happened? What went wrong?'"

The military is currently trying to learn just that. The helicopters went down in shallow water in the Godoria Range area, where they were conducting a nighttime training mission. The military has said visibility was good at the time and winds were light. There is also no indication there was hostile fire.

Twelve personnel were on board the two helicopters at the time of the crash. Two people survived and were transported to Landstuhl, Germany, for further medical treatment.

The Marines and their two CH-53E Super Stallions were assigned to New River-based Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464. The unit was assigned to Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, a U.S.-led force focused on deterring terrorism in the region.

"I don't really know the circumstances exactly," said Cpl. Matthew McCormick, a Marine stationed at New River while he filled his truck with gas across from the station's gate.

"It's a horrible thing. It's always rough when you lose of your own."

While everyone wants to know the accident's causes, Thoman said it's better to wait for the real facts instead of speculating on the cause.

"You have to learn to ignore all the rumors that abound, because everyone is an expert and thinks they know what happened," he said.

"The investigation will figure it all out."

Bob DeWilde of Jacksonville, a retired master sergeant who served as the quality-control inspector for President Gerald Ford's helicopter, said such disasters come with the territory.

"Accidents happen," he said. "I don't know why it happened, but they do happen. And it's just as common in the U.S. as it is where we are fighting a war."

A memorial service for the fallen warriors is in the planning stages, said Staff Sergeant Phil Mehringer, a spokesman for the air station. The final date has not yet been decided, and it's unclear whether the ceremony will be open to the public.

New River Marines killed in the crash were:

1st Lt. Brandon R. Dronet, 33, of Erath, La.
Sgt. James F. Fordyce, 22, of Newtown Square, Pa.
Lance Cpl. Samuel W. Large, Jr., 21, of Villa Rica, Ga.
Sgt. Donnie Leo F. Levens, 25, of Long Beach, Miss.
Cpl. Matthieu Marcellus, 31, of Gainesville, Fla.
Sgt. Jonathan E. McColley, 23, of Gettysburg, Pa.
Lance Cpl. Nicholas J. Sovie, 20, of Ogdensburg, N.Y.
Capt. Bryan D. Willard, 33, of Hummelstown, Pa.