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Subject: Six Member of Flight Crew From Georgia Air Base Die on Mercy Mission in Afghanistan

Moody Air Force Base
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Date Posted: March 25, 2003 1:18:03 EDT

Grief spread through this south Georgia military base following word that six flight crew members had been killed in a helicopter crash during a nighttime mercy mission in Afghanistan.

The HH-60G Pave Hawk crashed Sunday during a flight to pick up two children with life-threatening head injuries and take them to Kandahar. The crew was within a couple of weeks of completing its tour of duty and returning to Moody.

The city of Valdosta, which abuts the air base, mourned as well.

"We share the grief just like it was someone who had lived in Valdosta for 50 years," Mayor Jimmy Rainwater said. "They all know how dangerous it is and we know how dangerous it is. War is not pleasant for anybody."

More than 1,000 people - a third of the base - have been sent overseas, so as news of the crash spread, nearly everyone worried that the victims were people they knew.

"This hits very close to home," said Crystal Bennett, a teacher who said many of her students' parents are in the military.

Officials said the crash was not believed to be the result of enemy action. The Pentagon identified the dead as 1st Lt. Tamara Archuleta, 23, of Los Lunas, N.M.; Staff Sgt. Jason Hicks, 25, of Jefferson, S.C.; Master Sgt. Michael Maltz, 42, of St. Petersburg, Fla.; Senior Airman Jason Plite, 21, of Lansing, Mich.; Lt. Col. John Stein, 39, of Bardolph, Ill.; and Staff Sgt. John Teal, 29, of Dallas.

A memorial gathering for Archuleta was held Monday in Belen, N.M., outside her family's karate business. She was to be married in June, and leaves behind a 3-year-old son from a previous marriage.

Her father said that Archuleta "grew up in this town around people that cared about her and she cared about. These are the people she wanted to come back to."

Richard Long added that his daughter "died doing what she wanted to do and something she believed in - so that all these people protesting have the right to do so."

Teal, who had served seven years in the Air Force, was engaged to be married, said his uncle, Ken Brand. It was his second tour in Afghanistan.

"He was just a good kid who was serving his country and doing what he thought he was supposed to do for his service in the Air Force," said Brand.

Hicks, who was also on his second tour, was married Jan. 27, four days before he headed back to Afghanistan, said his uncle, Mendel Sullivan.

"I'm proud of him because to be a young man, he had his heart in the right place and he always loved his family and his country," Sullivan said.

Plite's stepmother, Geri Plite, of Lowell, Mich., said she last heard from her stepson on Saturday - he sent her an e-mail to wish her a happy birthday.

As he ended the message, Geri Plite said, he wrote: "'I've got to get some sleep because I have to go on a mission in a few hours.'"

The crew of the 41st Rescue Squadron - part of the 347th Operations Group - was trained to use helicopters to save downed pilots, sometimes in enemy territory. The group's commander, Col. Tom Trask, said the crash's cause was unclear, but it was not due to enemy fire.

"They were doing exactly what they were trained to do," Trask said. "It's one of the most dangerous places in the world to fly. There's mountains and dust."

A memorial service was planned Thursday.

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