HONOLULU — A redeployment ceremony was held Thursday at Wheeler Army Airfield to welcome about 2,600 aviation brigade soldiers from Afghanistan duty that saw the loss of two Black Hawk helicopter crews — one to pilot disorientation in a sandstorm and the other to a rocket-propelled grenade.
Between 1,800 and 1,900 soldiers stood at attention on the flight line as the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade unfurled its battle flags at its home station.
Brigade commander Col. Frank Tate said his soldiers' "initiative, hard work, warrior ethos and complete dedication to mission drove them to accomplish more than any similarly sized Army aviation unit in history."
The brigade flew 139,000 hours in support of ground troops — 35,000 more hours than their predecessors, he said. Tate also recognized eight aviation brigade soldiers killed in action on the Black Hawks lost in southern Afghanistan.
One crashed April 19 on a night rescue mission when visibility dissolved into a blinding and disorienting curtain of wind and dust and a phenomenon known as "spatial disorientation" occurred, family members previously said. The aircraft hit the ground, killing the crew of four.
Chief Warrant Officer Don C. Viray, 25, of Waipahu; Chief Warrant Officer Nicholas S. Johnson, 27, of San Diego; Sgt. Chris J. Workman, 33, of Boise, Idaho; and Sgt. Dean R. Shaffer, 23, of Pekin, Ill., died in Helmand province.
Four Black Hawk crew members from Schofield Barracks and three Navy sailors — two SEALs and an explosives expert — were lost Aug. 16 when a grenade downed their chopper, Tate said.
The helicopter was hit at about 300 feet by the shoulder-fired anti-armor weapon that has been used repeatedly to take down low-flying American choppers.
"At some point you have to pass through that danger zone to either land or take off, and they have very many rocket-propelled grenades," Tate said.
The overwhelming majority never hit anything, he said, "but the sheer volume, sooner or later they are bound to have some success."
The chopper went down in Shah Wali Kot district, a rural area near Kandahar city.
Killed were pilots Chief Warrant Officer Brian D. Hornsby, 37, of Melbourne, Fla., and Chief Warrant Officer Suresh N.A. Krause, 29, of Cathedral City, Calif. The other crew members were Sgt. Luis A. Oliver Galbreath, 41, of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Sgt. Richard A. Essex, 23, of Kelseyville, Calif.
Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician Sean P. Carson also was among the 11 killed, a list that included two SEALs assigned to a West Coast-based naval special warfare unit.
Carson, 32, was from Des Moines, Wash., but was based at Kaneohe Bay from 2001 to 2004. He met his wife, Nicole, in Hawaii and traveled here at least twice a year with his family.
Three members of the Afghan security forces and an Afghan civilian interpreter also were killed.
"Every single one of them were great men, and we loved every one of them," Tate said of the fallen soldiers. Two soldiers with the aviation brigade also died of noncombat causes, officials said.
Tate said being a soldier "is a stressful business, particularly in time of war, and it's easy for many Americans to forget that we are in a time of war — but no one in the Army forgets that."
Multiple deployments cause stress for soldiers and families, he said.
"And that's why we focus so heavily on taking care of those families and taking care of those soldiers — to help them deal with it," Tate said. "The best way to deal with that, frankly, is to pull together with each other, and watch each other, and talk to each other and be there for each other."
The unit deployed in early 2012 with about 95 Chinook, Black Hawk and Kiowa helicopters from Wheeler.
With other units added under Tate's command, Task Force Wings had about 215 aircraft and more than 3,300 soldiers in Afghanistan.
The task force ended up providing air support across three major commands — Regional Commands South, Southwest and West — Tate said.
All those flying hours meant more reconnaissance and attack missions to find the enemy, more movement of soldiers by air instead of on the ground where they were susceptible to roadside bomb attacks, and more missions to recover wounded, he said.
Spc. Daethan Fletcher, 23, a Chinook crew chief, estimates he flew on about 200 missions on what was his first combat deployment.
"It was not as bad as I thought it would be, but it was still pretty dangerous," the Georgia man said. "Our biggest enemy was the dust. We're coming in, we're just dusting up the whole place, so we really had to be on our toes and watch stuff on the ground."
Rebecca Henion's husband, Eric, 30, who returned Jan. 15, was part of the formation on the flight line Thursday.
"This is our third deployment. I don't know. I can't say they get easier, but it's great to have him home," she said.
Her son and brother, both East Coast-based Marines, will be going to Afghanistan in June, she said.
"Honestly, I'd like us to wrap it up in Afghanistan," she said.