CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) – Just four days before he was killed in a helicopter crash, Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif was awarded one of the military’s highest honors for heroism, a commendation he earned for his efforts to save a mortally wounded friend in heavy gunfire in Afghanistan.
Seif, 26, was given the Silver Star in a room full of his fellow Marines, walking arm in arm with his wife after the ceremony. The boy who grew up playing soldier in his Michigan backyard was hailed by one of his superiors, Maj. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, as a selfless person who put himself in the line of fire so that Sgt. Justin Hansen wouldn’t be left behind.
He and Hansen came under heavy fire as they closed in on a bomb expert in Afghanistan. His comrade was wounded; Seif moved him to safety, treated his wounds and fired back. At the ceremony, he deflected praise.
“There are definitely some individuals out there who deserve (the medal) just as well,” Seif said. “But it’s an honor to accept it on the behalf of the unit and on behalf of the rest of the men.”
The young Marine’s story emerged Friday when the Marines killed in the crash were publicly identified, some three days after the crash. The deceased had been students and husbands, officers and sons.
Four National Guard soldiers from Louisiana also were killed, though they have not been identified.
A salvage barge arrived at the crash site around noon Friday, Air Force spokeswoman Sara Vidoni said. Hauling the shattered helicopter core from about 25 feet of water was expected to take up to eight hours, she said. Despite some rain, she said the salvage crew expected to finish some time Friday night.
During a Friday news conference at Camp LeJeune, Osterman – who is commander of Marine Corps special operations forces – said the Marines were flying offshore to practice rappelling down ropes into the water and then making for land. He didn’t know whether the Marines were planning to reach shore by swimming or in small rubber boats, but the same drill had been practiced hours earlier during daylight, Osterman said.
“They literally had done it hours before in daylight as part of the rehearsal for being able to do the nighttime operations, which inherently are more difficult,” Osterman said.
The teams of Marines and Army-piloted choppers made a judgment call on whether conditions were sufficient for the training mission to go ahead. Then when they were heading out to start the mission, they tried to abort after deciding it was too risky, Osterman said.
Training is part of being ready for high risk operations. The seven Marines were members of the same team who constantly trained and faced danger together, he said.
Marine Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, has seen its members honored for valor and suffering with 19 Silver Star medals, 7 Navy Crosses, 189 Purple Hearts and 207 Bronze Stars, Osterman said.
“They really epitomized the silent warrior and the quiet professional that is really a hallmark of all the Marines here at MARSOC,” Osterman said of the 2,500 MARSOC troops. He declined to cite specific instances of heroism or the missions accomplished by other Marines who were on the doomed chopper.
Like other clandestine services, a private ceremony remembering the special operations Marines will be held in the coming weeks to help surviving family members close the page on their deaths.
Jenna Kemp’s husband, Kerry Kemp, was among the Marines killed. He was a “proud Marine, a loving husband and most wonderful father,” with a child about to turn 1, said her sister, Lora Waraksa of Port Washington, Wisconsin.
Another victim was Marcus Bawol, 27, from Warren, Michigan, north of Detroit. His sister, Brandy Peek, said military officials told them his remains had been identified. Bawol “loved everything about the military,” Peek said.
The other Marine victims were: Capt. Stanford H. Shaw, III, 31, from Basking Ridge, New Jersey; Master Sgt. Thomas A. Saunders, 33, from Williamsburg, Virginia; Staff Sgt. Trevor P. Blaylock, 29, from Lake Orion, Michigan and Staff Sgt. Liam A. Flynn, 33, from Queens, New York.
The National Guard soldiers, from Hammond, Louisiana, each did two tours in Iraq and joined in humanitarian missions after Gulf Coast hurricanes and the BP oil spill.