‘Larger than life’: Special Operations Marines recall teammates killed in helicopter crash

March 14, 2015 0 Comments

This composite image shows the Marines killed in a helicopter crash off the coast of Florida on March 11, 2015. From left  are Staff Sgt. Kerry M. Kemp, Capt. Stanford H. Shaw III, Master Sgt. Thomas A. Saunders, Staff Sgt. Andrew C. Seif, Staff Sgt. Liam A. Flynn, Staff Sgt. Marcus Bawol and Staff Sgt. Trevor P. Blaylock. (Photos released by the Marine Corps)

By Dan Lamothe March 13 at 6:16 PM

In the hours after a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed off the coast of the Florida Panhandle on March 10, some of the Marine Corps’ most elite members learned that their force had suffered a catastrophic loss. The aircraft had gone done in  thick fog near Santa Rosa Sound, a narrow body of water west of Eglin Air Force Base where the Marines had come to train.

On Friday, the names of all seven Marines killed in the Tuesday night crash were released. All of them were members of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), the elite force the service developed less than a decade ago to carry out dangerous missions in remote locations. Four members of the Louisiana National Guard operating the helicopter  were also killed; their names had not been released as of Friday afternoon.

[RELATED: Human remains found as search continues for 11 service members involved in helicopter crash]

Collectively, the Marines had dozens of years of experience, some of it forged in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of them, Staff Sgt. Andrew C. Seif, 26, had received the prestigious Silver Star for valor just a  week prior. Another, Master Sgt. Thomas A. Saunders, 33, had been named the top “critical skills operator” for MARSOC in April 2014 for leadership a year earlier. The award goes to an outstanding enlisted member of the command, and is highly regarded.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="259.0"]Military personnel search the shoreline of Santa Rosa Island near Navarre, Fla., on Wednesday near the site where an Army Black Hawk helicopter went down March 10  with seven Marines and four soldiers on board. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP) Military personnel search the shoreline of Santa Rosa Island near Navarre, Fla., on Wednesday near the site where an Army Black Hawk helicopter went down March 10  with seven Marines and four soldiers on board. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)

The other Marines killed are Capt. Stanford H. Shaw, III, 31; Staff Sgt. Marcus S. Bawol, 26; Staff Sgt. Trevor P. Blaylock, 29; Staff Sgt. Liam A. Flynn, 33; and Staff Sgt. Kerry M. Kemp, 27. None of the seven would want to be remembered for their awards, said other members of MARSOC who served with them in combat. Rather, they regarded themselves as quiet professionals who wanted to avoid the limelight.

“The only reason you find out that these guys were larger-than-life guys is because somebody else told you,” said another MARSOC team member who served with them in Afghanistan. “Because they damn sure wouldn’t be the ones to tell you.”

[RELATED: Fallen Marine awarded Silver Star days before crash]

The Marine, a gunnery sergeant, is one of several members of MARSOC who spoke to The Washington Post with the military’s permission under the condition of anonymity — not uncommon in a unit that values quiet professionalism and keeps many details about its operations secret. While the men will be remembered as highly trained Marines who withstood fierce battles overseas, their lives also were filled with humor, generosity and a deep respect for others who died while serving, their friends said.

Take Seif. On March 6, he received the Silver Star for valor. The action he was cited for took place July 24, 2012, while he was serving in western Afghanistan, according to his award citation. He rushed to the side of a fellow Marine, Sgt. Justin Hansen, who was cut down by gunfire and later died. Seif provided aid to Hansen, and then rushed alone into a compound from which they had been attacked to return fire.

At his award ceremony, Seif said he was accepting the award on behalf of his teammates and urged those present to reach out to the families of other MARSOC Marines who had been killed.

“Make you sure you remember those families out there,” he said. “Contact them. … They’re still a part of the family.”

Seif preferred to not receive attention, though, and had a bet under which whoever appeared on a Web site or in a newspaper had to buy his buddy a case of beer.

“He took things seriously, but he didn’t take himself too seriously,” the gunnery sergeant said, adding that Seif is actually up for another undisclosed award for valor for a separate act of heroism.

Saunders, on the other hand, was known as both bright and aggressive on the battlefield — a “big computer with big legs and arms” who also played  guitar in his free time, the gunnery sergeant said. As team chief, he mentored the younger Marines in the unit, and was widely admired.

“He could look at a problem set, and in a split second come up with an effective solution to the problem,” the gunny said. “He was always, ‘What’s the next target? What’s the next mission? Go, go, go.’ ”

[RELATED: Marine Corps realigns its Special Operations, sends elite troops to Middle East]

A staff sergeant who served with the Marines said Flynn grew up in Ireland and also had family in Australia. He was even-keeled in combat, and served as a sniper in the unit.

“He was constantly scanning to keep everyone safe,” the staff sergeant said. “He was always looking all around.”

Blaylock was supremely confident — the “most cocky guy I know,” the staff sergeant said. He joined the unit as an “absolute ball of fire” that raised questions initially, but quickly won people over with his expertise as a Special Forces engineer and wicked sense of humor.

“He was very boisterous and very talkative, to the point of ‘Good God, he’s still going?’ ” the fellow staff sergeant said.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1280.0"]A search boat from the Niceville Fire Department is shrouded in fog as rescue workers search the site on March 11 near Navarre Beach, Fla., where an Army Black Hawk helicopter crashed Tuesday evening. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP) A search boat from the Niceville Fire Department is shrouded in fog as rescue workers search the site on March 11 near Navarre Beach, Fla., where an Army Black Hawk helicopter crashed Tuesday evening. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)

Bawol was the steady rock in the group who accepted responsibility willingly and was engaged to be married, said a Special Operations officer who led their team before Shaw took over. He excelled in training, and — like many of his teammates — preferred to spend free time with his buddies at a bonfire rather than go to a bar, the officer said.

“He wasn’t going to act crazy or do anything ridiculous,” the officer said of Bawol. “He was just there to spend time with the people he cared about.”

Kemp, on the other hand, was a prankster about whom  “stories will be told until infinity,” the special operations officer said. He declined to share anything specific, but said that while Kemp gave off an aura where “you might not think he was the sharpest guy on first impression,” he would prove you wrong later.

Leading the group was Shaw, a 2006 graduate of the Naval Academy who had deployed to Iraq twice and spent time with Marine units in the Pacific. He was outgoing and candid, something that occasionally got him in trouble, his fellow officer said.

“He was always spot-on with his assessments, regardless of how they were received,” the officer said. “He was a great man, a great leader and a great friend.”

Maj. Gen. Joseph Osterman,  commander of MARSOC, said Friday in a news conference that the Marines were planning to rappel from the helicopter and practice landing ashore. They already had done so in the afternoon without incident.

The command numbers about 2,500 Marines, but has earned seven Navy Crosses, 189 Purple Hearts and 207 Bronze Stars with V device, illustrating the caliber of the Marines it recruits, Osterman said.

“They really epitomized the silent warrior and the quiet professional that is really a hallmark of all the Marines here at MARSOC,” Osterman said of the the fallen Marines.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.



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