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Operation Purple Star: Tragedy and Remembrance

Active Military
Active Military
June 19, 2019
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Just over a month from today, on July 22nd, 2019, a new memorial will be dedicated at the Battalion HQ of 2nd Bn, 8th Marines (2/8) aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, NC. This memorial will honor fourteen warriors who lost their lives twenty-three ago in one of the Marine Corp’s worst peacetime incidents. But the memorial doesn’t only tell the story of that tragic night, it also tells a story of how one Marine, in particular, took on the mission of leading the charge to make this memorial and its dedication a reality.May 9th, 1996 Off the Coast of North Carolina-0500 reveille is sounded aboard the USS Saipan (LHA-2). The Saipan along with at least two other of the US Navy’s Amphibious Assault Ships has been afloat for the past ten days doing final exercises for the upcoming deployment of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable ( 24th MEU SOC). At the core of the MEU is the ground combat element of Battalion Landing Team 2/8 which is mainly the North Carolina based infantry unit 2nd Bn 8th Marines along with its various augmentations. Supporting the MEU’s aviation operations is the composite squadron HMM-266.The Marines have been in a high tempo of preparation in conjunction with British forces as this pending deployment would likely involve operations in the war-torn Balkan region. Just several months ago the 26th MEU conducted the successful and highly publicized rescue of Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady who had been shot down over Bosnia. In fact, it was 2/8’s sister unit 3rd Bn. 8th Marines (3/8) that had conducted the mission.Sgt. Andre Bryson is the platoon “guide” for 2/8’s Golf Company, 2nd Platoon which has been designated as the Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel platoon (TRAP). The earlier recovery of Captain O’Grady was conducted by 3/8’s TRAP platoon. TRAP platoons are uniquely trained in advanced communications, medical triage, and explosives. Throughout the day, Sgt. Bryson was busy making sure his Marines were geared up for the next and final exercise of the pre-deployment phase as well as ensuring all logistics are squared away as the Marines will not be returning to the Saipan until it’s actual deployment in one month.At 2300, Sgt. Bryson, as well as all the other Marines aboard the Saipan, were organized into their “sticks” which would be boarding one of several CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters. TRAP is typically the last to get airborne and follows the command element while at the ready for any recovery operation. For reasons never known even today, Sgt. Bryson and the Marines were given a last-minute change. They were ordered not to fly out last and instead integrate with the rest of Golf Company.Shortly after the insertion at Camp Lejeune’s Landing Zone (LZ) Blue Bird, Sgt. Bryson and the rest of the TRAP platoon began its tactical night movement with the rest of 2/8. A sudden bright red flash and explosion was seen and heard in the sky above. Sgt. Bryson recalls one of his Marines saying in shock? “what was that?”. It did not take long for news to reach the Marines that one of the CH-46’s had been in a mid-air collision with one of the AH1 Cobra Attack Helicopters. The TRAP Marines quickly figured out that this was the CH-46 they had intended to fly out on earlier, and being the TRAP platoon, they immediately focused on their new and immediate mission, to recover those who had been on board.Both aircraft had crashed into the swamps of Camp Lejeune which made the recovery of anyone dead or alive almost impossible, but impossible was not in the vocabulary of the TRAP Marines. They first arrived at the Cobra, which had been carrying its flight crew of two Marine officers, neither of whom had survived the crash. Sgt. Bryson was notified by other members of the platoon that they had located the remains of the CH-46. Sgt. Bryson describes the impact as so violent that the crash had emptied the waters of the swamp. Both the pilot and flight officer, Maj Charles A. Johnson and 1stLt Walter W. Kulakowski had miraculously survived the crash despite extreme injuries, which the TRAP platoon immediately began to treat. But the worst fears had been confirmed about the other twelve passengers, none of whom survived.This was one of the worst losses of life since Operation Desert Storm and in the pre 9/11 era. The fourteen men lost that night never discriminated between training and live operations, they paid the ultimate sacrifice while preparing to deploy and do whatever was asked of them.They are:Lt. Col Michael D. Kuszewski1srLt Arthur J. SchneiderCpl Britt T. StaceyCpl Erik D. KirklandLcpl John P. CondelloLcpl Jose L. ElizarrasLcpl Jorge E. MalagonHN Brent W. Garmon (USN)Lcpl Jackie D. ChidesterCapt Scott T. Rice1stLt Joseph R. FandreyCpl Brandon J. TuckerCpl Brian L. CollinsSSgt Sean W. Carroll (USA)In late October 2018, roughly two dozen former members of 2/8 from the early mid-1990s gathered in Jacksonville, NC for a reunion. Most, including myself, were no longer in 2/8 at the time of the Operation Purple Star tragedy, but a number of those who attended were, including Sgt. Andre Bryson.During a hosted visit to the current 2/8 command post that week, all of us were in awe of the various memorials to fallen members of 2/8 throughout its history. Sgt. Bryson, however, felt more could be done to honor those lost in Operation Purple Star. It did not take long for him to start a fundraising campaign on Facebook and raise money for a proper engraved stone and bench.Thanks to the tireless efforts of Sgt. Bryson, there is now a proper memorial to the fourteen who lost their lives that night. The families of the fallen have been in contact with Sgt. Bryson and this July 22nd, 2019 they will be able to attend a formal dedication of the memorial at Camp Lejeune.We always hear about never leaving anyone behind, Sgt. Bryson and the Marines of 2/8 validated that on the night of the crash without question. We always talk about never forgetting the ones we lost, and no Marine from 2/8 who was there that night has ever forgotten. Now because of the efforts that resulted in this memorial being built, not only will they never be forgotten, but their story will live with the Marines and Sailors of 2/8 for generations to come.

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