The four Louisiana Army National Guard soldiers who died when their helicopter crashed off the coast of western Florida were husbands, fathers — including a father-to-be — and combat veterans with years of experience, officials said Monday.
"This has been a difficult few days for the entire Department of Defense, but I know for the Marine Corps and the Louisiana National Guard in particular," said Maj. Gen. Glenn Curtis, the state adjutant general, during a press conference.
The four soldiers and seven Marines died Tuesday after their UH-60 Black Hawk crashed into the water off the Florida panhandle during a training exercise. Bad weather made it difficult to conduct search and rescue — and later, recovery —operations, Curtis said.
Marine Corps officials on Friday released the identities of the Marines who died. They were all assigned to 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion.
The soldiers who died were assigned to 1st Assault Helicopter Battalion, 244th Aviation Regiment. All together, they had 76 years of military service.
• Chief Warrant Officer 4 George Wayne Griffin Jr.
The 37-year-old was married with four children, Curtis said.
Griffin had 21 years of military service, joining the Guard in 1994. He deployed to Iraq in 2004 and again in 2008. He also served during state deployments during Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Isaac, as well as in support of Operations River Guardian and Deepwater Horizon, according to the Guard.
Griffin commissioned as a warrant officer in 1999 before going on to become the battalion standardization pilot with over 6,000 flight hours, including more than 1,000 combat hours.
He was "born to be an Army aviator," said CW5 Reggie Lane, commander of Detachment 38, Operational Support Airlift Command, in a statement released by the Guard. "As one of the most talented and respected warrant officers in the Louisiana National Guard, he had a tremendous passion for flying, and a God-given natural ability to fly both helicopters and airplanes and to teach others to be the best aviators and crewmembers that they could be."
• CW4 George David Strother
Strother, 44, had 26 years of service. The husband and father of two served in the Louisiana National Guard from 1988 to 2007 and again from 2009 until his death.
He deployed to Iraq in 2004, Afghanistan in 2011 and Kosovo in 2014, according to the Guard. He also served during state deployments for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Isaac.
Strother commissioned as a warrant officer in 1994 before going on to become an instructor pilot with over 2,400 flight hours, including more than 700 combat hours.
"To describe Dave Strother as a big personality would not be accurate," said Maj. Andre Jeansonne, commander of F Company, 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment, in a statement released by the Guard. "He was more like a force of nature that could best be observed and marveled at, never opposed or altered."
• Staff Sgt. Lance Bergeron
Bergeron, 40, was married with two children. He had served for 21 years, enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1998 before joining the Guard in 2001 as a Black Hawk repairer.
Bergeron deployed to Iraq twice, first in 2004 and again in 2008. He also served during state deployments for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Isaac and Operation River Guardian, according to the Guard.
Bergeron was one of the most qualified crew chiefs in the Guard, with more than 1,300 flight hours, including 377 combat hours, according to Sgt. 1st Class Brian Marquez, platoon sergeant for A Company, 1-244th AHB.
"Lance was one of the most dedicated crew chiefs that I have ever had the pleasure of serving with during my leadership," Marquez said in a statement released by the Guard. "As the senior most standardization crew chief instructor in the battalion, he was a subject matter expert in his job who exhibited an excitement of learning new skills and educating new unit members on the UH-60 aircraft, pilots and crew chiefs alike."
• Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich
At 26, Florich was the youngest of the four men. He and his wife are expecting their first child.
Florich had eight years of military service, enlisting in the Guard in 2007 as a Black Hawk repairer. He was posthumously promoted from sergeant to staff sergeant.
"Tom was full of life, and his personality could light the room," said Marquez. "He was family with unit members and felt at home working with his brothers in Alpha Company."
"These Guardsmen represent the best of us," Curtis said, adding that the accident was "catastrophic."
On Monday morning, almost a week after the crash, recovery efforts were still ongoing, Curtis said during the press conference.
"Recovery operations are still going on so that we can recover as much of the aircraft and gather everything we can from the crash site," he said.
He said he wasn't sure how long the operation would take.
Two separate investigations into the crash are underway – an AR 15-6 as well as a more in-depth review by the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center, Curtis said.
Also on Monday, the Louisiana Guard resumed flying operations after suspending it after the crash, Curtis said.
"As a leader, you have to show that you care, but you can't wither," he said. "We all understand we have a mission to do, and we've got to stay involved in those missions."
Many members of the Louisiana Guard are combat veterans, Curtis said.
"Most of us have served in combat, so we understand," he said. "We've walked on this turf before. To me, the first critical step is we now know we have found our soldiers. It starts giving us and the families, more important, the closure we need."
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.