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Yuma Marines awarded for saving life in 2007 crash

By Cpl. Laura A. Mapes | | October 22, 2009

Three station Search and Rescue personnel received Air Medals Oct. 14, 2009, for their meritorious in-flight actions, which led to the rescue of a fellow air crewman after a SAR helicopter crash in 2007.

Capt. Sean Mitzel, pilot, Master Sgt. Russell Reale, maintenance chief and Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Skelton, corpsman, were the members of the SAR crew, who responded to the crash, which killed three Marines and one sailor.

“I think this represents what they are capable of,” said Lt. Col. Robert Ford, Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron commanding officer. “They accomplished their mission, because they had good (standard operating procedures), good training and were able to put aside emotion and do their job.”

Around 5 p.m. on Aug. 16, 2007, a SAR HH-1N Huey helicopter was reported overdue during a training exercise near the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground.

The rescue crew launched with the knowledge that the missing helicopter would be anywhere within a 35-mile radius of the station. The crew’s experience and knowledge of the area was instrumental in the search effort. The rescue crew was able to quickly eliminate all of the usual working zones, according to the award recommendation.

The rescue crew found the missing crew 20 miles north of Yuma after eight and a half hours of searching.

The downed aircraft had come to rest in a 200-foot-deep canyon and was not visible from the air without flying directly over the top of the site. The rescue crew hovered slowly over the crash site to look for movement or any sign of survivors.

“Getting this medal is a painful reminder of what happened,” said Reale.

The lone survivor of the crash would not have survived without the immediate and persistent efforts of the rescue crew, according to the award citations.

“This award represents the whole (unit). It took everybody’s input to accomplish that mission. This is as much a SAR award as it is a personal award,” said Mitzel.

The Air Medal was inducted into the United States military in 1942 to commemorate any service member who distinguished themselves by meritorious achievement while in flight.

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