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It has been nearly eight years since two Marine Corps helicopters collided off the coast of Djibouti and fell into the Gulf of Aden, killing eight Marines and two airmen. Two of the pilots who survived the horrific accident swam to shore, where they were rescued by four off-duty Djiboutian soldiers.
The local men carried them to safety and got them on a medevac flight, never to see them again.
As the years passed, the Djiboutians and Americans thought about each other often. Did the Americans survive? Did the Djiboutians know how grateful the Marines were? What are they doing now?
Those questions were finally answered this week when the pilots returned to Djibouti to reconnect with their rescuers and honor them during a ceremony at Camp Lemonnier in which the four men were presented the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service Medal.
Maj. Heath Ruppert and former Capt. Susan Craig were the only service members to survive the Feb. 17, 2006, collision between two CH-53E Super Stallions assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464. Craig, the pilot of one of the helos, and Ruppert, then a first lieutenant and her co-pilot, were on a training mission when the other Super Stallion’s rotors sliced through their tail, causing both aircraft to lose control.
Ruppert, now a student at the Marine Corps’ Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va., and Craig, who lives in Minnesota, said they never thought they’d return to Djibouti or get a chance to talk to the men who helped rescue them. Then they heard from Army Staff Sgt. Luke Thompson with 443rd Civil Affairs Battalion, who recently returned to Djibouti. The former radio operator had been stationed at Camp Lemonnier at the time of the crash and had flown with both crews regularly.
“Now I work a lot with the Djiboutian army, and one of the soldiers came up and handed me a letter,” Thompson said. “I took the time to read it and noticed the date right away. It mentioned that him and his friends responded to the crash and saved one man and one woman.”
That soldier was Sgt. Younis Ahmed Douleh, and he wanted to know if the pilots he helped rescue survived, Thompson said. Younis had been carrying the letter with him for years, hoping to find someone who could tell him about the pilots. In fact, he spent years learning English just so he could write the letter, Younis said, according to a news release.
Thompson linked up with Ruppert and Craig via social media to let them know he had met one of their rescuers. He then began asking around to find out more about the other soldiers involved in the rescue. He wrote up awards recommendations for the four men, which made their way up to U.S. Africa Command headquarters.
“I know they’re very proud of what they’ve done,” Thompson said. “And from speaking with other soldiers around the military, because it’s a very small army … these guys are kind of an urban legend ... known as the guys who rescued the Americans.”
On Tuesday, Younis along with Capt. Hoch Omar Darar, Sgt. Ahmed Abdillahi Djama and Cpl. Youssof Afgada Said were presented with the Humanitarian Service Medal during a ceremony led by Army Brig. Gen. Wayne Grigsby Jr., commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.
“Personally — both of our families and ourselves — we’ll be grateful to them for life,” Ruppert said. “They didn’t have to do what they did; they did it without being told. It demonstrates the partnership and relationship between our two countries. They totally exemplified everything the two nations stand for.”
A haunting memory
Craig said the memory of the accident in which so many service members died is a burden she’ll always carry.
“They are always in my mind — every day I think about the 10 that were lost and all of their families,” she said.
Craig and Ruppert were able to swim to shore, but both were wounded and shaken, nervous about how they would be found in an area of rough terrain and nightfall quickly approaching.
“As you can imagine, it was the most horrific experience and worst day of both of our lives,” Ruppert said.
When the two saw ships in the distance, they began hoping for a miracle, Craig said. They set off a pencil flare they had in their survival vests, she said. The ships continued sailing.
Then they saw five people about a half mile away and set off another flare to get their attention, she said. The group began heading their way. Ruppert said they were apprehensive at first, not knowing who the people were or what their intentions might be. But as they got closer, it became apparent they wanted to help.
“When we actually saw the Djiboutians, they were a ray of hope,” Ruppert said.
The four Djiboutian soldiers and a civilian were playing soccer nearby during their off-time when they spotted the stranded pilots. Despite the language barrier, the Djiboutians tended to the Marines’ medical needs and helped moved them to a better location, which involved carrying Craig, who couldn’t put any weight on her leg, she said.
With the Djiboutians’ help, the Marines were picked up within hours by other pilots with HMH-464. It was the last time they spoke with the men who saved them.
“I’ve wondered for eight years since the accident what happened to them,” Craig said. “I’ve always been grateful, I’ve always talked about them. ... As I was in the back of the helicopter flying back to camp that night, I thought about them and how grateful I was, but assumed I would never know anything about them.”
The trip back to Djibouti is a way for them no only to thank the soldiers, but to find closure, she added. And the compassion shown by their rescuers eight years ago reflects the connection between the U.S. and Djibouti that has only grown, Ruppert added.
“Professionally, there’s nowhere else I’d want to be than to watch these folks get recognized,” he said. “It’s amazing and humbling.”