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Copter Crash Deals Another Blow to San Diego Marines

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Marine Corps helicopter crash in Afghanistan on Sunday that killed two crew members and injured five others involved troops from the same San Diego base that lost seven Marines in a plane crash in the war zone just 11 days earlier.

Defense Department officials said the early-morning crash was apparently the result of mechanical problems with the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter. The crew was from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.

An emotionally wrenching memorial service was held at the base Thursday for seven Marines killed Jan. 9 when their KC-130 Hercules transport and refueling plane slammed into a mountain in Pakistan while attempting a night landing.

“It’s like somebody stepping on your heart,” Miramar spokesman Maj. T.V. Johnson said of the latest crash. “We were just beginning to get over the loss of seven Marines and now this. . . . Every Marine realizes: ‘It could as easily been me.’ ”

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The Super Stallion was on a routine resupply mission when it made a “hard landing” in mountains about 40 miles from the Bagram air base north of Kabul, the Afghan capital, officials said. The crash occurred in daylight about 30 minutes after takeoff.

Killed were Staff Sgt. Walter F. Cohee, 26, of Wicomico County, Md., a communications navigation technician, and Sgt. Dwight J. Morgan, 24, of Willits in Mendocino County, Calif., a helicopter mechanic.

Cohee’s mother, Jeanne, said he was eager to go to Afghanistan despite the dangers. “He told me: ‘I hate to tell you this, but if they ask for volunteers, I’m going. I signed up to help my country, and that’s what I’m going to do,’ ” she said.

Morgan’s former high school principal remembered him as a quiet, likable youth who excelled in mechanics classes and decided early in his senior year that he wanted to be a Marine.

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“His mother was real proud of Dwight and his accomplishments and the success he was having in the Marines,” said Keller McDonald, who was principal of Willits High School when Morgan graduated in 1995. “Certainly it’s a shock to this community and his family.”

Morgan was due to be promoted soon to staff sergeant, and that promotion will be made posthumously, officials said. Morgan’s wife, Teresa, is expecting their second child, friends said. The couple also have a 4-year-old son.

Morgan’s mother, Mary Trimmer, drove to San Diego from Huntington Beach to be with Teresa.

Don Willett, a family friend, said Morgan loved the order and discipline of the Marine Corps and especially loved working on helicopters.

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“He knew exactly what he wanted to do,” Willett said. “He had his whole life planned.”

Injured were Cpl. David Lynne, 23, of Mecklenburg County, N.C., the helicopter crew chief; Cpl. Ivan Montanez, 22, of Hayes County, Texas, a mechanic; Cpl. Stephen A. Sullivan, 24, of Pickens County, S.C., a crew chief; Capt. William J. Cody, 30, of Middlesex County, N.J., a pilot; and Capt. Douglas V. Glasgow, 33, of Wayne County, Ohio, a pilot.

The two crashes involving Miramar aircraft and troops make January the deadliest month to date for U.S. military personnel in the war on terrorism.

“Your heart just breaks every time something like this happens,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters in Washington.

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The five injured Marines were flown to a U.S. medical facility in the region, officials said. Their injuries are considered moderate and not life-threatening.

Although the Marine Corps has sent thousands of infantry troops from Camp Pendleton and Camp Lejeune, N.C., to Afghanistan, those troops have suffered no fatalities. The Marines who have died were all on supply missions; the KC-130 was taking fuel to forward locations. The cause of the plane’s crash, however, has not been determined.

Six of the Marines involved in the Super Stallion crash were assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, the Flying Tigers, at Miramar. Glasgow is stationed at the Marine air station in Yuma, Ariz., but was assigned to fly with the Miramar squadron, officials said.

In keeping with a policy of not releasing information about ongoing operations, the military did not specify what type of supply mission the helicopter was conducting. But it is known that U.S. Special Forces are in the nearby mountains searching for Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders.

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Names of the dead and injured were withheld until officials could break the news to family members. “My kitchen window faces the driveway, and when I looked out and there were three Marines . . . I knew they were not coming to give me good news,” Cohee said.

Cohee said her son planned a career in the Marines: “The Marines, to him, were the best.” He had been scheduled to return to San Diego earlier this month, but a heavy workload kept him in Afghanistan, she said.

The accident was the third fatal crash of U.S. aircraft in the Afghan campaign.

Two Army Rangers were killed in October when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Pakistan during a nighttime operation to support a raid near Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city.

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Only two U.S. personnel are known to have been killed by enemy fire in the 3-month-old war: a soldier who died in an ambush this month and a CIA operative killed during an uprising of prisoners near Mazar-i-Sharif in November.

Three Army Green Berets were killed Dec. 5 when a 2,000-pound bomb from a U.S. plane landed 100 yards from their position during the battle for Kandahar between opposition fighters and Taliban and Al Qaeda forces.

The CH-53E Super Stallion is a workhorse helicopter of older design. Marine officials have been concerned about the age of their helicopter fleet and have been working for years to replace the CH-53E and CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters with the new but controversial tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft.

The Marine Corps’ fleet of Super Stallions has been grounded twice in recent years after fatal crashes. In 2000, the helicopters were grounded for three weeks after a Navy variant of the Super Stallion crashed off the coast of Texas, killing four people.

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The Marines replaced the swash plates on the helicopters, a critical part that provides a coupling between the craft and its moving rotors. Problems with the swash plate had been blamed for a 1996 crash that killed four people at the helicopter plant in Connecticut.

In Afghanistan, the Super Stallions and other military helicopters have been used to fly daily missions over long distances and rough terrain to keep troops in forward bases supplied with ammunition, food and gear.

Marine spokesman 1st Lt. James Jarvis said there was no initial indication that the Super Stallion was hit by hostile fire even though Taliban and Al Qaeda forces are known to have shoulder-launched Stinger missiles. The missiles were given to Afghan fighters by the CIA during their decade-long war against Soviet forces in the 1980s.

The CH-53E--with a replacement cost of $26 million--is capable of lifting 16 tons of cargo, carrying more than 50 troops and being refueled in flight. Although the movement of troops and cargo is its primary mission, the Super Stallion is also used on rescue operations.

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Two CH-53Es helped rescue Air Force Capt. Scott O’Grady when his plane crashed in Bosnia in June 1995. The same type of helicopter also rescued American and other allied personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Somalia in 1990.

In other developments Sunday, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said military and intelligence officials in Afghanistan had told him recently that they believe Bin Laden remains in east-central Afghanistan or across the border in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier province.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said on “Fox News Sunday” that while Bin Laden’s precise location remained uncertain, this was the view of “more than 50%" of those he spoke to on a recent trip to the region.

Bin Laden’s whereabouts have remained a subject of intense interest, but top U.S. officials have continued to insist that they don’t know where he is or whether he is alive.

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Both Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell reiterated that view in TV appearances Sunday. Powell said on “Fox News Sunday” that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was “just speculating” when he said last week that he believed Bin Laden had died of kidney failure.

U.S. officials also signaled that the military is about to give up control of John Walker Lindh, the young California man accused of fighting with the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld said he believed that Lindh would be turned over to civilian officials in the “next several days,” depending on how soon the military could arrange transportation. Lindh is being held on the amphibious assault ship Bataan in the Arabian Sea.

Rumsfeld said Lindh will probably go on trial in federal court in northern Virginia.

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A Pentagon spokesman in Washington said military officials intend to put him “in control of the FBI in the coming days.”

Rumsfeld sought to rebut an allegation by Lindh’s parents that he has not been allowed to talk to the lawyer they have retained.

“It’s my understanding that he has not asked to have a lawyer,” Rumsfeld said.

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Perry reported from San Diego and Reitman from Kabul. Staff writers Paul Richter in Washington, Richard Marosi in Los Angeles and Jessica Garrison in Orange County contributed to this report.


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