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Army identifies nine soldiers killed in Fort Campbell helicopter crash

March 31, 2023 Updated Sat., April 1, 2023 at 6:58 p.m.

A Humvee from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division sits parked at a checkpoint near the site where two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters crashed on Thursday in Cadiz, Kentucky.  (Luke Sharrett)
A Humvee from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division sits parked at a checkpoint near the site where two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters crashed on Thursday in Cadiz, Kentucky. (Luke Sharrett)
By Dan Lamothe and Amber Ferguson Washington Post

The U.S. Army on Friday released the identities of nine U.S. soldiers killed in the crash of two Black Hawk helicopters in southwestern Kentucky, the military’s deadliest training accident in nearly three years.

The victims ranged in age from 23 to from 36. They included four Afghanistan war veterans, several medical professionals and four pilots – two of whom completed training last year.

Army officials have disclosed little about the incident, which occurred after 10 p.m. Wednesday in rural Trigg County. The crash site is located west of where the soldiers were assigned at Fort Campbell along the state’s border with Tennessee.

Investigators are working to determine the cause, officials have said, declining for now to speculate whether the helicopters collided before crashing. No distress calls were heard from either aircraft, which went down in a field near a residential area.

Upon departing Fort Campbell, the pilots used night-vision goggles to conduct the training flight, officials said. Black Hawk helicopters often fly in two-ship formations, and have long been a workhorse for the Army. The personnel on board all were members of the 101st Airborne Division, which specializes in air assaults.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, called the tragedy “a salient reminder of the daily sacrifice that our nation’s servicemembers and their families make, whether deployed or here at home.”

The U.S. military’s most recent training accident of a similar scale was the sinking of a Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle off the coast of California in July 2020. Eight Marines and a Navy sailor drowned in a case the service later determined was preventable.

The victims:

Warrant Officer 1 Jeffery Barnes

Barnes, 33, was born in Florida and enlisted in 2010 from Milton, a small city in the Panhandle, Army officials said. Initially, he maintained helicopters before becoming a warrant officer and aeromedical evacuation pilot last year.

As an enlisted soldier, Barnes deployed to Afghanistan with the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade.

Cpl. Emilie Marie Eve Bolanos

Bolanos, 23, was born in the Philippines and enlisted in the Army from Austin in 2019, Army officials said.

She became a Black Hawk crew member with the 101st Airborne Division’s combat aviation brigade in March 2020, serving nine months in Germany as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, which rotates units of soldiers from the United States to Europe to bolster NATO security.

Heather Brent, an Army friend who considered Bolanos a mentor, recalled how she “was always there for advice.”

“She was always positive, silly, but loved aviation and took her work very seriously and was extremely proud of what she was doing,” Brent said. “She loved serving.”

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Zachary Esparza

Esparza, 36, had been in the Army since 2010, enlisting from Jackson, Mississippi, after being born in Texas, the Army said. After completing entry-level training, he was assigned to Okinawa, Japan.

Esparza became a signal support specialist, troubleshooting radios and other electronics in 2013. He deployed to Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014 as an enlisted soldier, and then attended warrant officer school in 2015 and became a Black Hawk pilot.

In 2017, Esparza became an aeromedical evacuation pilot with the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade at Wheeler Army Airfield in Hawaii, deploying to Egypt to serve on the Sinai Peninsula for 10 months. He was assigned to the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade in 2021, serving as an instructor pilot.

Sgt. Isaacjohn Gayo

Gayo, 27, was born in the Philippines and enlisted in the Army from Los Angeles in 2019. After entry-level training, he became a Black Hawk crew chief at Camp Humphreys in South Korea.

Gayo had been assigned to the 101st Airborne Division since October 2020.

Staff. Sgt. Joshua C. Gore

Gore, 25, was born in Virginia and enlisted in the Army from Morehead City, North Carolina, in 2015. He pursued a career as a combat medic and flight paramedic, attending several schools to do so in 2021.

Gore had served with the 101st Airborne Division since May. His father, Tim Gore, a pastor in Wayne County, N.C., told WRAL that his son was expecting his first child with his wife Haleigh.

“They just found out yesterday it was a boy,” Gore said. “She was my son’s childhood love, so the grief of the moment stretches pretty deep right now.”

Warrant Officer 1 Aaron Healy

Healy, 32, was born in Florida and enlisted from Cape Coral in 2010, the Army said. He initially specialized in handling ordnance and was assigned to the 563rd Aviation Support Battalion at Fort Campbell.

After a stint at Alaska’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Healy was assigned at Fort Lee, Virginia, and then attended warrant officer school and aviation training at Fort Rucker, Alabama. He was assigned again to Fort Campbell, becoming an aeromedical evacuation pilot with the 101st Airborne Division.

Healy deployed to Afghanistan twice, from 2011 to 2012 and again in 2014, Army officials said.

Staff Sgt. Taylor Mitchell

Mitchell, 30, was born in Alabama and enlisted in the Army from the town of Mountain Brook in 2014, officials said. He pursued a career as a flight medic, attending flight paramedic school at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and serving with the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Riley, Kan. He joined the 101st Airborne Division in November 2020.

Mitchell deployed to Europe twice as part of Atlantic Resolve, serving in Romania in 2019 and Germany in 2020, the Army said.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Rusten Smith

Smith, 32, was born in Florida and enlisted from Rolla, Missouri, in 2012. He initially pursued a career in intelligence, serving at Fort Hood, Tex.

Smith became a warrant officer and pilot with the 101st Airborne Division last year, Army officials said. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2013 and again from 2018 to 2019. He also spent nine months in Germany in 2020 as part of Atlantic Resolve.

“Rusten was a true Missouri boy,” read the post of a Facebook user who identified himself as Smith’s uncle. “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. He wanted to serve his country and he wanted to fly the skies. … and he did.”

The post noted that Smith was married with three young children.

Sgt. David Solinas

Solinas, 23, was born in New Jersey, and enlisted from Oradell, in Bergen County, in 2018. He underwent training in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Fort Sam Houston, and was then assigned as a combat medic with the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Since October, Solinas had served as a flight paramedic with the 101st Airborne Division.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said that on Tuesday flags across the state would be flown at half-staff in Solinas’s honor. “At just 23 years of age, David already left an imprint on his community and his service will not be forgotten,” the governor said.

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