Chance encounter connects Marines with long lost rescuers
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 28, 2014
STUTTGART, Germany — As Staff Sgt. Luke Thompson examined the letter written in broken English, the first thing that jumped out was the date: Feb. 17, 2006.
The note, passed to him by a Djiboutian soldier in October, continued: “smoke, fire, crash of two helicopter.”
“I have been rescue pilots,” it read. “One man, one girl.”
Thompson instantly recognized what the Djiboutian was talking about. In 2006, Thompson was supposed to be on one of the two U.S. Marine Corps CH-53 helicopters that collided off the coast of Djibouti. The crash killed 10 service members, including two airmen Thompson had been training. Only two Marines survived the crash.
“It was just a chance encounter,” said Thompson, now a civil affairs team sergeant, in a phone interview. “He (the soldier) didn’t know if the two had survived. He was happy just to hear that.”
The chance meeting between Thompson and Sgt. Younis Ahmed Douleh in October at a Djiboutian Army English-language course, set in motion a plan to formally recognize the rescuers and reconnect them with the two Marines they helped.
On Tuesday, Younis, along with Djiboutian army Capt. Hoch Omar Darar, Cpl. Youssouf Afgada Said and Sgt. Ahmed Abdillahi Djama, received the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service at a ceremony at Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. military base at Djibouti’s international airport.
Susan Craig, a former Marine Corps pilot, and her co-pilot, Maj. Heath Ruppert, flew in from the United States to meet with their rescuers.
“Eight years ago this accident happened and we’ve talked about these folks so many times,” Craig said during a phone interview. “Who are, they? Where are they now? They were our heroes that day.”
On the day of the crash, Craig remembers landing in water and swimming ashore. “We escaped drowning, but our adrenaline started to wear off and we were feeling the effects of the trauma,” she said.
Set against mountainous terrain, the Marines had difficulty establishing contact with the U.S. military camp. Meanwhile, the hours passed and night was setting. They began to fire flares, eventually drawing the attention of some Djiboutians in the distance. Although the soldiers didn’t speak English, it was clear they were trying to help.
“They were the most compassionate people you could think of,” Ruppert said. “They offered water, gave us first aid. Another was making radio calls. We could tell they were there to support and take care of us.”
The Djiboutians then carried the Marines a half-mile through rough terrain to reach the landing zone to meet a rescue team. When it arrived, the soldiers loaded them onto the aircraft, Ruppert said.
But the Djiboutians never learned the fate of the Marines they rescued.
“I really wanted to meet those people,” said Younis, whose translated statement was provided by Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa. “The last thing I remember was that they were in the helicopter and it disappeared. Since that day I don’t know what was going on.”
For years, Younis carried his letter around, passing it to Americans he encountered. But no one ever knew seemed to know what the cryptic note was about.
For Thompson, it was pure luck that he wasn’t on the flight back in 2006. Initially slated to ride along for a training exercise, a last-minute change in plans resulted in him staying on base.
“I sent two of my airmen up with the helicopter and later on I got a call that they (headquarters) hadn’t heard from them,” Thompson said. “I immediately got launched on the rescue and recovery effort.”
Having lost so many comrades in the crash, that day in 2006 remained etched in his memory. After meeting Younis years later, he wanted to make sure the U.S. military recognized the Djiboutian troops for their aid of the Marines.
“I just felt that it was a deed that needed to be recognized,” Thompson said. “They did a great thing for those pilots.”
Susan Craig, right, a former U.S. Marine Corps pilot, and Maj. Heath Ruppert, left, Craig's former co-pilot, applaud a group of Djiboutian soldiers who were awarded the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, March 25, 2014. The soldiers rescued Craig and Ruppert following the Feb. 16, 2006 crash of two CH-53 helicopters off the coast of Djibouti, which killed 10 of the 12 personnel aboard.
Eric Dietrich/U.S. Navy