Louisiana veteran aims to build cabin for families of soldiers killed in 2009 Afghanistan helicopter crash
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. September 7, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — It was 3 a.m. in western Afghanistan on Oct. 26, 2009, when Shawn Stewart and seven crew members were flying aboard an Army Chinook helicopter, call sign Arcane 22. They were providing support for a raid on drug operations in Afghanistan to disrupt the distribution of heroin that was funding insurgents.
Following a lead helicopter, Arcane 21, they stopped near the village of Darreh-ye Bum to pick up 36 people, including Special Forces troops, Drug Enforcement agents, Marine Corps raiders, and Afghan soldiers.
"We got everyone on board. Typical, load everyone up. So, we get ready to take off and [the lead helicopter] takes off and they blow dust in our faces," said Stewart, who lives in Gun Barrel City, Texas.
They knew Taliban forces were aware of their position, so despite the blinding dust, Arcane 22 ascended 100 feet before the helicopter's rotor struck the side of a mountain, throwing the aircraft off course.
"I heard blades still going and I was like what the heck is happening," Stewart said. "We were facing down and started to pick up speed. We spike into this building, and that's when we crashed."
Five of Stewart's crewmembers and friends were among the 10 people who died that night. The crash is considered one of the deadlier days of the Afghanistan war.
He and one other person were the only members of his crew to survive. The crash left Stewart with four broken vertebrae, both hips broken, four broken ribs, internal bleeding and a collapsed lung after being thrown around the helicopter fuselage. He faded in and out of consciousness and was surrounded by fire.
Little did Stewart know that night would inspire a fellow soldier to create the Arcane Project, Inc., a nonprofit aimed at providing for Gold Star families, and start a GoFundMe page to create a cabin out of a Chinook fuselage as a memorial and a space for reflection for veterans and families.
Broussard resident Jeremy Thibodeaux, a Silver Star recipient and former staff sergeant, flight engineer and door gunner in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, worked alongside Stewart to maintain Chinooks like the Arcane 22.
"These aircraft have a lot of sentimental value to the guys that have flown these things, especially overseas in combat," Thibodeaux said. "They were our lifeline."
The project aims to raise $40,000 to transport a CH-47 fuselage from Miami to Eunice, La. So far, it has raised more than $2,000. The project's 501c3 status is currently under review.
The idea came when Thibodeaux and veterans George Davis and Pedro Ramos wondered how much it would cost to buy a fuselage — just out of curiosity. Ramos joined a Chinook Facebook group to see if anyone knew how to purchase one.
A Miami man said they could have his for free if they can pay to move it.
The fuselage will be transported to Thibodeaux’s parents’ property in Eunice so he can work on it. He’d ultimately like to put the cabin at a place like Toledo Bend, but he is not sure where its final home will be. He hopes with the help from the aviation and military community, the project will be completed in under a year.
The goal is to create a safe space of quiet contemplation for families and veterans. The cabin will be free of charge for Gold Star families, families who lost family members in the line of duty. It will also be of low cost to veterans.
"It's been since 2009 since they were killed and I can tell you it still hurts," Thibodeaux said. "I still reflect on it. Unfortunately, as time goes on people are forgotten, names are forgotten. I'm trying to keep their memory going as long as it can."
All profit will go to support Gold Star families, Thibodeaux said. He also hopes, as the nonprofit expands, to provide services and aid to veterans including housing for homeless veterans, assisting with medical bills, and addiction and mental health treatment. He'd like to build more cabins.
"These soldiers left behind small kids, family members, wives and I want to make sure they are taken care of," Thibodeaux said.
Stewart said he already donated to the fundraiser and hopes to see it when it's finished. He believes those who sacrifice themselves for their country deserve to be honored as well as their families that must live with the loss. Stewart's sons are named in honor of two men who died in the crash.
Stewart cannot forget their names or that night.
Jeremy Valdez and nearby Marines helped pull Stewart out of the wreckage and brought him to safety. Eventually, Stewart made it to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he learned the fate of his crew.
"Just a nightmare, we all have nightmares," Stewart said, "but man it's amazing what those guys did to get me out of there."
He looks forward to visiting the Chinook cabin when it's ready.
"I'm so excited for it, oh my God, I want to go play in it," Stewart said, "Just to sit in the cabin. I want to touch the stuff, touch knobs, remember those nights you had. It going to bring back good memories."
Thibodeaux hopes his cabin can be a place of refuge for men like Stewart.
"This is going to be a nonprofit that is going to benefit veterans for years to come. I hope it takes off because I've been in situations in my life where I could have used helped from a nonprofit such as this," Thibodeaux said.
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