NAPLES, Fla.- A local retired soldier says he flew missions with some of the military members killed in a crash near the Florida Panhandle. Eleven men are presumed dead.
Wilfredo Vazquez calls the men, the bravest he knows.
“It’s a challenge coin, handed out for excellence. Anytime you do a good deed. Above honor and courage, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and on the back it says First of the 244th.”
A coin he was honored with in 2005, while serving in Iraq. A coin given to him by members of the First 244th Assault Helicopter Battalion, based out of Hammond, Louisiana.
“These soldiers were brave, these soldiers were well-trained.”
Wednesday, Vazquez is mourning the death of his old friends.
They were part of the crew that crashed during a nighttime training exercise near Eglin Air Base late Tuesday night.
Seven Marines, and four Army National Guard members, are presumed dead.
“My heart sank. Great guys, loved to have fun, loved to have life on our side. Very, very professional when it came to doing their jobs,” said Vazquez.
The men were flying a Black Hawk. Vazquez completed missions on similar helicopters, during two tours in Iraq.
“I served with you guys, and my heart is heavy for you guys.”
Vazquez says these men trained on Special Operations daily, so something had to go wrong out there. He just doesn’t know what.
“Not speculating, but there’s something called spacial disorientation. And that’s where your mind plays tricks on you, especially when flying with night goggles. Your mind is telling you you are flying upside down,” said Vazquez.
Investigators will work to determine if the fog was a factor in the incident. The names of the men involved have not been released.