HONOLULU – Most of the troops lost in the U.S. military's deadliest crash of the Iraq war were based in Hawaii, but they came from coast to coast, from Florida to New Hampshire, from Ohio to Oregon.
Some of the families of the 30 Marines and a Navy medic killed Wednesday when a helicopter crashed in a sandstorm shared their memories and their grief after military officials told them of the deaths. The Pentagon identified the sailor killed as Petty Officer 3rd Class John D. House (search), of Ventura, Calif., but said it would not publicly identify the Marines until 24 hours after all families were notified. So far, the families themselves have identified 14 of the Marines.
House was a 28-year-old who never got the chance to meet his baby boy, born Christmas Eve.
House had written letters home describing the camaraderie and responsibility he felt for the Marines in his unit, his parents told the Ventura County Star.
"In one of the letters he wrote, 'I know all of them ... even in the dark, by their mannerisms,"' Susan House of Simi Valley, Calif., read, choking back tears. "'I don't know how I am going to deal with losing any of them. It is my job to take care of them and keep them safe."'
The CH-53E Super Stallion (search) went down in western Iraq as troops while transporting troops for security operations in preparation of Sunday's elections. The military was investigating the cause of the crash and gave no indication there had been enemy fire.
"We think it's an accident, but we don't know for sure," Lt. Col. Owen Lovejoy, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, the unit to which 27 of the dead belonged. "We'll know when the investigation is complete."
House and 26 of the Marines were based at Marine Corps Base Hawaii (search) at Kaneohe Bay. It was the single worst loss of Hawaii troops since the attack on Pearl Harbor more than 60 years ago.
The helicopter crew of four was from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.
For Cpl. Matthew Smith, 24, military service had been a lifelong dream. As a child, he would talk about joining the Army to protect his family, said his mother, Colleen Parkin.
Parkin, of West Valley City, Utah, became convinced she had lost her son only after the Marines who came to her home to give the news recited his Social Security number.
"He died a hero and brave," said Parkin, choking back tears.
Ohio lost at least three Marines in the crash: Cpl. Richard Gilbert Jr., 28, of Dayton; Lance Cpl. Jonathan Edward Etterling, 22, of Wheelersburg; and Sgt. Michael Finke Jr., 28, of Wadsworth.
Etterling had just talked to his parents Saturday, telling them he was tired and had lost more than 15 pounds.
When Marines came to the family's house with the bad news, "I prayed, 'Let him be wounded, let him be wounded,"' his father, William Etterling, told the Portsmouth (Ohio) Daily Times. "My heart just fell."
Cpl. James Lee Moore's family heard of the 24-year-old Roseburg, Ore.-native's death Wednesday night, when several Marines came to their door, said his stepmother, Suzanne Moore.
"It still hasn't sunk in," she said. "We can't get past, 'We regret to inform you..."'
Hector Ramos, 20, of the Chicago suburb of Aurora, Ill., joined the Marines soon after the 2001 terrorist attacks, his mother said.
"He came home from school and he told me, 'I signed up. I need to do this. I always wanted to,"' Nancy Ramos told WLS-TV of Chicago on Thursday. "I am the proud mother of a Marine."
Cpl. Nathan Schubert, of Cherokee, Iowa, was killed nine days before he was supposed to leave Iraq, his brother, Matt, told the Sioux City Journal. The pair had planned to spend time working on an old Jeep Nathan had bought.
"He was just the kind of person that would be everybody's best friend," Matt Schubert said.
Others killed, according to their families, included Cpl. Sean Kelly, 23, of Pitman, N.J.; Cpl. Timothy Gibson, 23, of Merrimack, N.H.; Lance Cpl. Rhonald Dain Rairdan of San Antonio; Nathan Moore of Champaign, Ill.; Lance Cpl. Tony Hernandez, 22, of Canyon Lake, Texas; and Spc. Gael Saintvil, 24, of Orlando, Fla.
Some families reacted to the news with anger, others with sad acceptance.
Nadine Finke, stepmother of Michael Finke, said she doesn't believe there is any justification for the war that claimed his life.
"I'm sure there are many other parents out there that don't think there is either," Finke, of Wadsworth, Ohio, told WKYC-TV of Cleveland.
But the death of Cpl. Kyle J. Grimes, 21, a native of Bethlehem, Pa., has strengthened his mother's belief in the U.S. mission in Iraq.
"It makes me more convinced that we need to get this job done and have a positive influence there and make things better," Marybeth LeVan told The Express-Times of Easton, Pa., from her home in Louisiana.