TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Five U.S. soldiers based at Fort Riley, Kan., and one based in Europe were killed in a helicopter crash this week in southern Afghanistan, Army officials said Thursday.
The Army confirmed the soldiers died when their Black Hawk UH-60 went down Tuesday during a mission in Zabul. One soldier survived the crash. The deaths make it one of the bloodiest casualty incidents in either the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. In 2011, six soldiers from a Fort Riley artillery battalion were killed in Baghdad. Five combat engineers were killed in 2004 when a bomb exploded beneath their armored personnel carrier in Malahma, in Iraq's Sunni Triangle.
The five Fort Riley soldiers killed Tuesday were identified as Chief Warrant Officer 2 Randy L. Billings, 34, of Heavener, Okla.; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joshua B. Silverman, 35, of Scottsdale, Ariz.; Sgt. Peter C. Bohler, 29, of Willow Spring, N.C.; Sgt. 1st Class Omar W. Forde, 28, of Marietta, Ga.; and Spc. Terry K.D. Gordon, 22, of Shubuta, Miss.
A sixth soldier, based in Vilseck, Germany, was identified as Staff Sgt. Jesse L. Williams, 30, of Elkhart, Ind. Fort Riley confirmed that a seventh soldier was injured in the crash, although officials there said they could not release a name because of privacy reasons. Military officials said the crash was under investigation and that they didn't know if the helicopter had a mechanical failure or was shot down.
The deputy governor of southern Zabul province said Wednesday that a NATO helicopter crashed in the remote district of Shajau and U.S. officials later confirmed that Zabul was the location of the U.S. crash.
The crash is the second one in the region in 2013 involving aircraft based in Kansas supporting operations in Afghanistan. In May, a KC-135 tanker aircraft base out of McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita crashed in Kyrgyzstan killing the entire Washington state-based crew.
Bohler, who went by "Chris," was the oldest of three children and came from a long line of soldiers. The News & Observer of Raleigh reported that his great-grandfather served in Europe during World War I. One of his grandfathers enlisted in the Army during World War II, and a great-uncle enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean War.
His mother, Deborah Bohler, is a long-time employee of the Wake County District Attorney's office. District Attorney Colin Willoughby said the family learned of the death before dawn Wednesday. He said the mother came by the office and left a note. He added that the family requested privacy.
The following message was on Deborah Bohler's Facebook page Wednesday: "At 5:30 this morning my heart shattered into a million pieces. Dear God gives us strength to get through this pain." Williams' mother, Debbie Bussard Passerallo, told The Elkhart Truth in Indiana that her son was promoted to staff sergeant about two weeks ago. "He was big and strong," she said. "He didn't let things get him down. When he was a friend, he was a friend forever."
Maj. Gen. Paul Funk II, commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley, offered condolences to the soldiers' families and friends. "We stand ready to support them and I urge our community and the nation, while remembering their sacrifices this holiday season, to do the same," Funk said in a statement Thursday.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reflected on the soldiers during a Pentagon press conference. "The loss of six U.S. troops in a helicopter crash on Tuesday is a heartbreaking reminder of the sacrifices" the men and women serving in Afghanistan continue to make, he said.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said "the holiday season is a particularly difficult time to lose someone you love." The 1st Division Combat Aviation Brigade sent some 2,000 soldiers to Afghanistan in August for a nine-month deployment, replacing the 3rd Infantry Division's Combat Aviation Brigade. According to a brigade news release in September, the soldiers are responsible for providing air support over a mountainous and desert region roughly the size of Montana.
Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek in Washington and Skip Foreman in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.