Luke Thompson’s memories of that fateful February night in 2006 have never faded.
The Army Reserves staff sergeant and Elyria High School graduate was on duty as a radio operator at the Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa base at Fort Lemonnier, Djibouti, where he routinely flew aboard helicopter training missions.
“These were regularly occurring missions for us,” Thompson, 30, said Tuesday by phone from his African base. “I’d flown with these crews several times when there was the need for a radio operator.”
Thompson and a Marine corporal were slated to ride on one of two CH-53 Marine Corps helicopters for a nighttime training flight Feb. 16, 2006.
“We decided to let (two Air Force airmen) get direct experience by going up with more experienced people,” Thompson said. “We had other things we wanted to do that night.”
So Thompson and the Marine “walked them down to the flight line, changed the (passenger) manifest, strapped them in and conducted pre-flight radio checks.”
“We never spoke to them again,” said Thompson, who was born in Cleveland but whose family moved to Elyria when he was 2.
The two airmen, including Senior Airman Aecia S. Good, 23, of Broadview Heights, and eight Marines, died less than two hours later when their vehicle — the largest American-built helicopter — collided with another CH-53 over the Djibouti coast.
“One of the helicopters turned to the right for a landing,” Thompson recalled. “There was some missed communication and the aircraft turned into each other.”
Rescue teams, which included Thompson, recovered all 10 bodies in about 24 hours.
“It felt like it lasted a lot longer,” Thompson said.
The only survivors were Marine Corps Capt. Susan Craig, a pilot, and Major Heath Ruppert, Craig’s co-pilot.
The rescue efforts led to a formal ceremony Tuesday at Fort Lemonnier in which four Djiboutian soldiers were commended for their life-saving efforts eight years ago.
Each of the four men, including Djibouti Sgt. Younis Ahmed Douleh, received the Humanitarian Service Medal.
The recognition ceremony occurred because of Thompson’s work with the Djiboutian Army’s English language program for Djiboutian soldiers.
“A Djiboutian soldier approached me (on Oct. 5, 2013) with a letter,” Thompson said. “It was written in very broken English at best, but a few things about it stood out.’’
When he read “carry one man and one woman,” he realized the soldier’s identity.
“It was hard to believe I was talking to one of the rescuers,” Thompson said. “It was just amazing to me.”
The letter writer was Sgt. Douleh, who had tried repeatedly to present his letter to American military personnel over the years in hopes of learning whether the pilots he helped save were alive.
Douleh had been a student in the base’s English language program. He had asked repeatedly about the mission, but since he wasn’t yet fluent in English, no one was grasping what he was asking.
“He began re-writing the letter and continued asking people about it,” Thompson said. “He was very determined.”
So was Thompson, who drew on Douleh’s persistence to fuel his own mission to win recognition for the Djiboutian rescuers.
“He (Douleh) told me they didn’t want anything for what they did because it was just what soldiers do,” Thompson said. “He was very humble about it. That strengthened my resolve to make sure these guys got recognized.”
Making that happen proved harder than Thompson imagined.
“For a few reasons I won’t explain, things did not go as fast as I would have liked,” said Thompson, who used social media to locate and contact Craig, who left the Marine Corps in 2009.
She got Thompson in touch with Ruppert, who now is serving with the Marine Corps Command and Staff College at Quantico, Va.
Both endorsed Thompson’s campaign.
With the aid of many American military officials and the Djiboutian military foreign affairs office, Thompson eventually tracked down the four soldiers who were stationed throughout Djibouti and Somalia.
A civilian who also aided in the rescue could not be identified or found.
“After eight years, it was a complicated process, but my chain of command was very helpful to get timely recognition for these men once it got started,” Thompson said.
Thompson, who joined the Army in 2000 following graduation, has been stationed in Africa since 2002 as part of a major force supporting counter-terrorism military operations by a multinational coalition, as well as emergency response and recovery operations in East Africa.
He said via phone interview that the ceremony seemed right.
“It was good to see this come full circle … to see them finally get the recognition they deserved,” he said.
Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.