OCEANSIDE, Calif. – This seaside military town reacted with grief and resolve Wednesday at the news that 31 servicemembers were killed when a transport helicopter crashed in the deadliest single incident yet for U.S. forces in Iraq (search).
"It's terrible, but it comes with the territory," said Carl Dreibelbis, 52, an Oceanside (search) native who served in the Navy and said members of his family have fought in every U.S. war since the American Revolution.
"I'm afraid that when people hear this, their inclinations will be to retreat. But I say charge," Dreibelbis said.
Twenty-seven of the victims were based at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay, which is under the operational control of the 1st Marine Division (search) at Camp Pendleton, near Oceanside. Some of the victims were also members of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego. Further details were withheld pending notification of families.
The crew chief onboard the helicopter, Lance Cpl. Tony Hernandez, deployed to Iraq last summer and was scheduled to return to Camp Pendleton in March, said his father, Leroy Hernandez, of Canyon Lake, Texas. He said he last spoke with his son on Sunday.
"He said it was cold, that he didn't like the weather, that he was working his butt off — the usual gripes," Hernandez said. "He didn't say a lot because he didn't want anyone to worry."
The previous deadliest incident in Iraq for American servicemembers also was a helicopter crash: In November 2004, two Black Hawks collided while trying to avoid ground fire, killing 17 servicemembers.
Wednesday's crash occurred as personnel were being transported by the CH-53E Super Stallion as part of security and stabilization operations. The military did not mention a possible cause.
Amber Warlock, 31, a former Marine whose husband is a Marine pilot stationed at Camp Pendleton, said she was stunned when she heard about the crash on television.
"You hear about people dying every day in ones and twos," she said. "But 31 is just too much to comprehend."
She sought solace at the beach with her 5-month-old daughter Heidi and a fellow Marine wife who cried at news of the deaths, even though she had confirmed her husband was OK in Iraq.
"You just know how every single woman sitting in her home feels, whether it's going to be yours or someone you know," Warlock said. "It doesn't matter who it is. It's a bad day for everybody."
Hernandez said his son tried to join the Marines after he graduated from high school but was rejected because he was too heavy. After visiting with a recruiter again, he was soon running hard and dieting to trim nearly 25 pounds off his frame. He had lost another 20 pounds by the time he finished Marine boot camp in California.
"We went to his graduation and we almost didn't recognize him," Hernandez said.
He said his own memories of fighting in the Vietnam War weighed heavily on him after his son deployed to Iraq.
"I knew [the war] was going to escalate — it was pretty much guaranteed," he said. "Unfortunately it's the young kids who end up paying the price."