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Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Alvarez was watching an MV-22B Osprey rise from a training site in Morocco last year when everything went wrong. The aircraft lost balance, pitched forward and crashed nose-first with a sickening crunch on the landing zone.
“As soon as it got speed, maybe three or four seconds afterward, it dove straight into the ground,” said Alvarez, a platoon commander at the time with Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines. “My thoughts immediately afterwards were, ‘We’ve got to get those guys out.’ ”
Alvarez and other members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., scrambled to help on April 11, 2012, rushing to assist Marines who were trapped inside the aircraft at Cap Draa, a military training area southwest of Agadir, Morocco. Fuel was leaking from the aircraft, debris was falling from the sky and the engines were still turning, but the Marines broke in anyway to see what they could do to help.
On June 3, the Corps awarded Alvarez and four other Marines the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for their heroism that day. It is the highest non-combat decoration awarded for heroism by the Navy Department.
Alvarez received the award at Camp Lejeune along with Sgts. Daniel Beers and Christopher Ewain and Cpls. Michael Pearson and Steve Hanson. A sixth Marine, Sgt. Merritt Huntley, could not make it due to a training mission but will receive the award at a later date, Marine officials said.
Beers said he was speaking to Morroccan sailors about 400 meters from the landing zone when the Osprey fell from the sky.
“It was a sound that I’ll never forget,” he said. “As soon as I heard the propellers digging into the ground, I turned around and I could see the tail end of the crash. I could see the debris in the air and everything like that.”
Cpls. Robby Reyes and Derek Kerns, both crew chiefs, died following the crash. The pilot and co-pilot were gravely wounded but survived, Marine officials said. Alvarez said two tourniquets had to be applied to each of the co-pilot’s legs to stop the bleeding.
Beers said he used his bare hands to pry fiberglass panels off the Osprey to get to the crew chiefs. He used tweezers for weeks afterward to pull pieces of fiberglass from his hands, he said.
Beers and Alvarez both said they appreciate the recognition from their unit but wish Reyes and Kerns survived.
“We knew there was danger, but at the time, we really weren’t thinking about ourselves,” Beers said. “We were thinking about the Marines inside and getting them help. We wanted to get them out of the aircraft.”
Alvarez said he hasn’t seen the pilots since that day, but he thinks of them and Reyes and Kerns.
“We’re still out here. And we haven’t forgotten about them,” Alvarez said.