Friends and family are mourning the loss of nine soldiers who died in a crash last week involving two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters in southwestern Kentucky.
Two HH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division crashed around 10:00 p.m. on March 29 during a training exercise in Trigg County, Kentucky, about 30 miles northwest of the Army base Fort Campbell. All nine soldiers aboard the two aircraft were killed.
The “multi-ship” exercise included the use of night- vision goggles, said Brig. Gen. John Lubas, the 101st Airborne deputy commander. According to Lubas, the accident occurred during flying and not during a medical evacuation drill.
The incident is currently under investigation by an Army aviation safety team from Fort Rucker, Alabama.
“This is a time of great sadness for the 101st Airborne Division. The loss of these soldiers will reverberate through our formations for years to come,” said Maj. Gen. JP McGee, commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division and Fort Campbell. “Now is the time for grieving and healing. The whole division and this community stand behind the families and friends of our fallen soldiers.”
Here’s what we know so far about the nine service members.
Rusten Smith, 32
While his service took him across the globe, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Rusten Smith made an indelible mark on St. James, Missouri, the town northeast of Rolla where Smith attended high school and where his parents and sister live.
Smith joined the Army in 2012, where he was an instructor pilot for the 101st Airborne Division and served in Afghanistan and Germany.
In a Facebook post, Smith’s aunt AJ Morris called him “a true Missouri boy who loved to hunt, fish, walk the woods, and run the rivers.”
“He could have lived a perfectly happy and content life at home, safe on a farm, in rural Missouri. But he had a big dream. He joined the Army with two goals,” Morris wrote. “He wanted to serve his country and he wanted to fly the skies…..and he did.”
The family, Morris wrote, is “crushed” by the sudden death, but “we couldn’t be more proud of the husband, father, and warrior (Smith) was and the choices he made in life.”
Smith graduated from St. James High School in 2009. He played basketball during the 2007-2008 season, and his coach posted a team photo on Facebook Thursday.
“We lost a wonderful role model today,” wrote Ben Smith, industrial arts teacher and head basketball coach at St. James High School, “and our hearts are heavy.”
Smith is survived by his wife, Caroline, and their three children; his mother, Brenda, and father, Rad, both of St. James; his sister, Lena (Monty) Turner of St. James; his aunt, Audrey “AJ” (Rich) Morris of Waynesville; grandparents and extended family.
— Susan Szuch, Springfield News-Leader, USA TODAY Network
Zachary Esparza, 36
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Zachary Esparza of Jackson, Missouri, was known for his infectious positive energy.
From his days at Bayless High School in St. Louis, Southeast Missouri State University, and throughout his 13-year military career, friends say Esparza’s lively personality had a way of lighting up the room.
He started his military career as a satellite communications specialist before entering the Army Warrant Flight program in 2015, and became a MedEvac helicopter pilot with the 101st Airborne Division and served throughout the world.
Esparza had a wide spectrum of interests. He was a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, an outdoorsman, snowboarder, and a self-proclaimed charcuterie board artist.
Among his greatest passions was making his loved ones laugh.
In 2018 he mailed out Christmas cards dressed as National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation” character Uncle Eddie, sporting a robe and trapper hat in front of an RV.
“He was one the most genuine, fun-loving spirits who could spark a conversation with anyone and always would be the center of the party,” Ryan Christy, a friend of Esparza’s in the Army, posted to Facebook. “While also being someone a lot of us leaned on when we were struggling after losing MFO400R.”
MFO400R was a 2020 Black Hawk helicopter operation in Egypt that resulted in a crash that killed seven, including five U.S. service members.
“Zac lived his life to the fullest while defending his country and traveling the world. He passed away while doing what he loved most, flying his aircrafts,” his sister, Rebecca Esparza, posted to Facebook. “Let’s celebrate the light that Zac brought into our lives and learn to live how Zac lived — to its fullest.”
David Solinas Jr., 23
Sgt. David Solinas Jr. of Oradell, New Jersey was dedicated to being a flight medic which showed his character, his brother, Aidan Solinas, said in a statement.
“We are a faithful family and we are proud David was training to rescue soldiers on the battlefield,” he said. “Being a flight medic is one of the most difficult jobs that you can do, and illustrates that David was a man of compassion and faith.”
— Nicholas Katzban, Katie Sobko, and Michael Karas, NorthJersey.com, USA TODAY Network
Joshua C. Gore, 25
Staff Sgt. Joshua C. Gore of Morehead City, North Carolina was kind and compassionate.
Known to his family as Caleb, Gore’s father, Tim Gore, told the Goldsboro News-Argus that that his son was an infant when the family moved to North Carolina and remained in the state until he joined the Army after graduating high school.
“His passion was search and rescue, and if you were wounded on the battlefield, Caleb coming out of that helicopter would be the most beautiful thing you would ever see,” Gore told the newspaper. “He was kind, compassionate, and a gentle giant because he was built like a tank.”
Gore said his son leaves behind a wife who’s pregnant.
Jeffery Barnes, 33
After training in South Carolina and Virginia, Barnes was assigned to 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade as an attack helicopter repair person in Savannah, Georgia. He went on to be a squad leader in the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade at Camp Humphreys, Korea.
He also served with 4th Combat Aviation Brigade in Fort Carson, Colorado, and in 2019, Barnes served as an instructor at Fort Eustis, Virginia before attending warrant officer training in 2020.
Barnes was serving as an aeromedical evacuation pilot for the Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division since October 2022.
While assigned to 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, Barnes deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Barnes’ awards and decorations include the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Achievement Medal; the Meritorious Unit Commendation; the Army Good Conduct Medal; the National Defense Service Medal; the Afghanistan Campaign Medal (Campaign Star); the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; and the Korea Defense Service Medal.
— Pensacola News Journal, USA TODAY Network
Emilie Marie Eve Bolanos, 23
Cpl. Emilie Marie Eve Bolanos of Austin, Texas enlisted in the Army in 2019.
According to WATE 6 News, a local Tennessee TV station, Bolanos trained in South Carolina and Virginia. She had been assigned as a helicopter repairer and air crew member for the Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division since March 2020, the station reported. She served nine months in Germany in support of Atlantic Resolve in 2020.
— Megan Menchaca, Austin American-Statesman, USA TODAY Network
Isaac John Gayo, 27
Sgt. Isaac John Gayo of Los Angeles, California, joined the Army to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot.
Gayo and his family emigrated from the Philippines in 2012, according to his sister Margaritta Gayo. Isaac John Gayo worked a number of odd jobs with Los Angeles Unified School District and in the film industry before enlisting in the Army, which he hoped would help him realize his dream of becoming a pilot.
Gayo’s sister described her brother as her best friend, someone who motivated her daily, calling with good news and well wishes.
“Every time I close my eyes, I see him,” she said. “He was not ready. He had a lot of dreams, he had a lot of plans.”
Isaac John Gayo enlisted in the Army in 2019, attended training in South Carolina and Virginia, and was awarded the U.S. Army Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal and the Overseas Service Ribbon, according to a report released by the Army.
— Christopher Damien, Palm Springs Desert Sun, USA TODAY Network
Aaron Healy, 32
Warrant Officer 1 Aaron Healy of Cape Coral, Florida leaves behind his parents, Vicki and Michael, brothers Shaun and Brandon and his wife and daughters, Sierra, Blakelyn, 12, and Dakota, 10.
Healy was a dedicated father who loved to spend time with his wife and daughters. They spent most weekends on some sort of family activity, his parents said.
Healy’s career in the military came as something of a surprise to his parents, but they said he loved it. Without telling them, Healy enlisted in the army to become a mechanic after his Florida Institute of Technology scholarship was pulled because too many of them had been given out.
He also didn’t tell them about Sierra at first.. According to his mother, he and Sierra, who was his high school classmate, began corresponding via Facebook Messenger. But he didn’t breathe a word to his family – until he came home during leave. He had been deployed for the first time to Afghanistan, and was stationed in Kandahar.
When they went to the airport to pick him up, he told them there was someone he wanted them to meet, and walked them over to Sierra, who was sitting nearby.
“That’s when we found out,” said Vicki, laughing at the memory.
The Healy family hopes to have Aaron interred in Arlington Cemetery. Part of what makes this so tough, Vicki said, is that Aaron was so young. He and Sierra never even discussed their deaths, let alone what they wanted done with their remains.
— Kate Cimini, Fort Myers News-Press, USA TODAY Network
Taylor Mitchell, 30
Staff Sgt. Taylor Mitchell of Mountain Brook, Alabama, enlisted in the Army in 2014, according to WHNT-TV, a local Alabama TV station.
The station reported that after training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Mitchell was assigned to 2nd Calvary Regiment, Vilseck, Germany as a health care specialist.
Mitchell then served as a flight paramedic at Fort Riley, Kansas, after attending flight paramedic school in 2017, according to the station. Mitchell was serving as a flight paramedic for the Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division since November of 2020.
Mitchell also served on two rotational tours in support of Atlantic Resolve, to Romania in 2019 and Germany in 2020, the station reported.
Contributing: The Nashville Tennessean, USA TODAY Network; The Associated Press