The four Louisiana men killed last week in a National Guard helicopter crash in Florida were husbands, fathers, “larger-than-life men” with decades of experience under their belts after having spent thousands of hours in the sky, the military said Monday.
They were killed when their UH-60 Black Hawk crashed March 10 in Santa Rosa Sound, near Pensacola, Florida, during a training exercise.
After nearly a week of withholding their identities while the military recovered their bodies, the Louisiana National Guard on Monday named the aircrew: Chief Warrant Officer 4 George Wayne Griffin Jr., 37, a pilot; Chief Warrant Officer 4 George David Strother, 44, a pilot; Staff Sgt. Lance Bergeron, 40, a crew chief; and Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich, 26, a Black Hawk repairer.
“I’ve flown with each and every one of these men,” said Col. Patrick Bossetta, commander of the state Guard’s Aviation Command. “I don’t have a better crew. ... I’d have put my son in the back of that aircraft.”
The four had decades of experience among them, and they combined for thousands of hours of flight time, much of which was in combat. Griffin and Bergeron each had deployed to Iraq twice, and Strother had deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
The aircrew also responded to hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Isaac as well as other disasters such as flooding and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Florich, the youngest crew member, was from Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, where he will be interred, but he was living in Baton Rouge at the time of the crash.
Griffin was originally from Delhi and Bergeron from Thibodaux, but both men had been living in Hammond. Their unit, the 1-244th Assault Helicopter Battalion — also known as Task Force Voodoo — is based in Hammond near the airport.
Strother was born in Pineville and had been living in Alexandria at the time of the crash.
Seven Marines from Camp Lejeune also were killed in the wreck, which occurred during a routine training exercise out of the Eglin Air Force Base, near Pensacola. The cause is still under investigation.
“This has been a difficult few days for the entire Department of Defense,” said Maj. Gen. Glenn Curtis, adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard, during a Monday morning news conference at the Jackson Barracks Museum in New Orleans.
“These Guardsmen represent the best of us. ... These are brave men, true men. These heroes’ names will forever be etched on our hearts and in our minds,” he said.
When asked why the military waited six days to release their names, Curtis said it was the magnitude of the wreck.
“It was a catastrophic accident. I would ask you to accept that at face value so that I don’t have to get into too much description of what the conditions were,” he said.
The soldiers were identified through DNA tests, and the last confirmation came Sunday night, Curtis said.
Standard life insurance for soldiers is $400,000, Curtis said when asked about compensation for the flight crews’ families. However, some benefits “do not come to play” when a service member dies in training rather than in combat, the major general said, adding that some have proposed changes to that legislation.
A crew with dreams
Griffin’s stepmother, Linda Griffin, described him as an “awesome man, who accomplished a lot of his dreams: getting his pilot’s license, doing two tours in Iraq and having three little boys.”
“He was a natural-born pilot,” she said. “A lot of people have to work to get at it, but he lived and breathed it.”
Griffin began flying at the age of 16 when he got his first license for fixed-wing planes.
He completed his first basic training between his junior and senior years at Acadiana High School in Lafayette, from which he graduated in 1995.
“The day after he graduated, he left to go to his second basic and then he was full-fledged National Guard,” Linda Griffin said. “He got his wings for helicopter in 1999.”
“He knew exactly where he was going from the time he was talking,” Linda Griffin said with a gentle laugh.
Wayne Griffin was an active member of Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Hammond, where he helped with the junior league golf club, bass club and fundraising.
“He was a family man. He loved his little buddies; that’s what he called them,” Linda Griffin said of his three youngest children, all boys.
Florich, of Baton Rouge and a former LSU student, was expecting his first child at the time of the crash, Curtis said.
Chris Sollie, who served in the Guard with Florich, asked him to be a groomsman in his wedding. When one of Sollie’s family members died, Florich called his buddy and invited him over.
“He’s got an infectious personality. He could make a bad day into a good day,” Sollie said.
“He made me feel better. That’s just the type of person he is. He’s one of those people who’s one in a million, and he’s going to be very missed by a lot of people.”
Sollie said Florich liked crawfish and they bonded over food, and when they were too poor to afford better-quality beer, Natty Light.
“(Florich was) an all-around good guy. … He pulls people together in a way that I’ve never seen before,” Sollie said. “He could make the enemies friends. … I don’t know if he had a mean bone in his body.
The two men had planned to buy a boat last weekend to go duck hunting together, Sollie said.
“But that didn’t happen.”
Bob Strother described his younger brother, David Strother, as the “poster child” for the National Guard.
Retired Maj. Ben Baldwin, who served in the National Guards of Texas and Louisiana, went to boot camp with Strother, his childhood friend, and both eventually became helicopter pilots.
Baldwin said when the two were in eighth grade, they would line up their desks and pretend to fly helicopters, tilting in their seats to each imagined bank and turn.
David Strother was “gung-ho” to go to boot camp the summer between his junior and senior year of high school back in 1988, Bob Strother said.
“If it was right, he’d fight for it,” he said.
David Strother was described as funny and gregarious, as well as a father figure to his son’s friends. His son, in fact, followed David Strother into the National Guard.
“David was my best friend. … He was a best friend to everybody,” his older brother said.
While his family is mourning, Bob Strother said he can take solace in the fact that nothing was left unsaid between brothers. David Strother always reminded the people in his life that he loved him.
“He was a solid guy,” Bob Strother said. “You would have loved him to death.”
Bergeron, also of Hammond, served in the U.S. Marine Corps before joining the National Guard, where he set the standard for crew chiefs, Sgt. 1st Class Brian Marquez said.
“Lance was one of the most dedicated crew chiefs that I have ever had the pleasure of serving with,” the platoon sergeant said in a prepared statement.
“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.”
His technical expertise made Bergeron “a crew chief others aspired to be,” the National Guard wrote in a news release.
And while the staff sergeant was all business at work, he liked nothing more than to talk LSU football during downtime, Bossetta said. His whole house is painted purple and gold, the colonel said — walls, cabinets and all.
Why did they crash?
There will be two investigations of the crash. The National Guard will perform its own internal review to examine the cause of the wreck, expected to last several more weeks.
The U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center at Fort Rucker will perform a more in-depth investigation that will include reconstructing the crash and making suggestions to help the military avoid future crashes.
On Monday, Army spokesman Michael Negard said the investigative team was still collecting evidence. It is unclear how long it will take to complete the review.
Because both Griffin and Strother were pilots, Curtis said the military has not determined who was flying when the Black Hawk went down. Investigators may never find out, he said.
Divers were still looking for debris and remains at the crash site Monday, Eglin spokeswoman Sara Vidoni said. A civilian salvage crew was called to recover the main portion of the wreck over the weekend. The majority of the downed helicopter was taken on Sunday to Hurlburt Field near Eglin for review, Vidoni said.
The U.S. Coast Guard has escorted some water traffic through the crash site, but civilian water travel in the area is still being restricted, she said. The no-fly-zone imposed nearby was lifted over the weekend.
The National Guard, which had grounded its own aircraft, was expected to resume flying operations Monday, Curtis said. The military, himself included, still has a job to do, he said.
“As a leader, you have to be caring. You have to show that you care, but you can’t wither,” he said.
Staff writers Heidi R. Kinchen and Ben Wallace contributed to this report.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.