The airman killed in a helicopter crash on Okinawa was a decorated para-rescue veteran whose effort to recover a wounded soldier was captured in one of the most iconic combat photos to come from the war in Afghanistan, the Air Force said Saturday.
Tech. Sgt. Mark A. Smith, a flight engineer with the 33rd Rescue Squadron who had deployed twice to Afghanistan, died in the Aug. 5 crash of his HH 60G Pave Hawk helicopter while on a training mission at the Central Training Area on the Marine base at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, the Air Force said.
Three other airmen aboard the helicopter that was part of the 18th Wing at Kadena Air Force Base were injured and listed in stable condition.
The crash triggered another round of protests and demonstrations on the island against the U.S. presence and overflights, and delayed the deployment of an additional 10 Marine MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to join the 14 already on Okinawa at the Futenma Marine airbase.
"Smitty was a total professional and true warrior," said Lt. Col. Pedro Ortiz, commander of the 33rd RQS. "He led by example and was wise beyond his young age of 30. In combat or out, I am proud to call him my brother." Smith, of Bakersfield, Calif., was survived by his wife, Jessica, and two daughters.
Smith, who joined the Air Force out of high school in July 2000, "was a quiet guy outside the aircraft, but in the aircraft, a totally different person," Ortiz said. "In the aircraft, he was blunt and told you how it was. I loved that. His ever-present drive was to make you better and to take care of everyone in combat," Ortiz said in a report from the 18th Wing.
Smith participated in countless rescue missions but "One that stands out is the rescue of a commando in the Kamdesh," Ortiz said. "They were under fire by rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns. Smitty was rock solid with his hoist despite the imminent and close threats."
On April 13, 2012, Smith was aboard an HH-60 that came to the rescue of Afghan National Army and U.S. Special Operations Forces troops during a battle against insurgents near the village of Kamdesh in mountainous and remote eastern Nuristan province.
The photo of the rescue effort, taken by Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Clay Weis, has since gone viral in the rescue community. Smith was shown at the hatch of the HH-60, operating the hoist that lowered two para-jumpers to recover a wounded commando.
For his actions under fire, Smith was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal by then-18th Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Matt Molloy last year.
The scene of the rescue effort near the village of Kamdesh was also the site of the former U.S. Combat Outpost (COP) Keating, where eight U.S. troops were killed and 22 wounded in repelling an attempt to overrun the base by the Taliban on Oct. 9, 2009.
Last February, Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha received the Medal of Honor for his actions at COP Keating from President Obama at the White House. On Aug. 26, Obama will award the Medal of Honor to Staff Sgt. Ty Carter, another survivor of the COP Keating battle.
In honoring Smith, Brig. Gen. James Hecker, the 18th Wing commander, said "Team Kadena has lost a hero. Our hearts are with Smitty's family, friends and loved ones. We all suffer through the loss of one of our precious own."
The Air Force has released only sketchy information on the crash and the nature of the training mission in which the HH-60 was participating pending the results of an ongoing investigation. Initial Air Force reports suggested that the three surviving crew members had "ejected" from the aircraft.
In an e-mail statement from Kadena, Lt. Col. Jonathan Riley, an 18th Wing spokesman, said the crew members couldn't have ejected "because the HH-60 doesn't have an ejection system."
The crash of the Pave Hawk led to high-level, closed-door meetings between U.S. and Japanese officials in Tokyo on Thursday to contain the political fallout on Okinawa that threatened to impede the planned relocation of the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station from the densely-populated Ginowan area to a more remote site.
The U.S. delegation was led by Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs. On the Japanese side were Koji Tomita, head of the Foreign Ministry's North American Affairs Bureau, and Hideshi Tokuchi, director general of the Defense Ministry's Policy Bureau.
Afterward, Lavoy would only say "We had a very good meeting." At a press briefing before the talks, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said "We will continue to ask the U.S. side to place priority on safety, and reduce the base-hosting burden on Okinawa."
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima has yet to to approve Tokyo's request to begin landfill operations offshore in the Nago area of Okinawa for a planned airstrip to replace Futenma.