FORT RILEY, Kan. -- The five Fort Riley soldiers killed last month in Afghanistan were remembered by friends and colleagues Thursday for their smiles, their professionalism and their willingness to volunteer for difficult missions.
The tributes were part of a memorial service for the soldiers who died when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed in December while on a mission. Nearly 500 people crammed into Morris Hill Chapel at Fort Riley to render a final salute and share the memories.
The incident occurred right before soldiers and families at Fort Riley began celebrating the Christmas season, casting a pall over the northeast Kansas post. The crash was one of the deadliest incidents in either the Iraq or Afghanistan wars for Fort Riley.
"They leave a hole in our heart forever," said Lt. Col. Matt Weinshel, who commanded the crew while deployed in Afghanistan. He last spoke with the soldiers in early November.
"Each of these soldiers knew full well the risks they assumed, but they loved their mission and each other. They truly loved flying and told me so on several occasions."
Outside, a firing squad and bugler stood in frigid temperatures to offer a 21-volley salute and play taps. Soldiers later filed to the front of the chapel to salute their fallen colleagues in front of a small memorial that included boots, rifles and aviation helmets. Many left challenge coins, mementos bearing military insignia that are bestowed to recognize special achievements, touching their dog tags before walking away.
The Fort Riley soldiers who died were Chief Warrant Officer 2 Randy L. Billings, of Heavener, Okla.; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joshua B. Silverman, of Scottsdale, Ariz.; Sgt. Peter C. Bohler, of Willow Spring, N.C.; Sgt. 1st Class Omar W. Forde, of Marietta, Ga.; and Spc. Terry K.D. Gordon, of Shubuta, Miss.
Also killed was Staff Sgt. Jesse L. Williams, of Elkhart, Ind., who was based in Vilseck, Germany.
A seventh soldier, also from Fort Riley, was injured and is recovering from his injuries. The Army hasn't released his name, citing privacy concerns.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation. The soldiers were part of the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, which is on a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.
Soldiers read prepared remarks about each of the five men who died, weaving in personal anecdotes. The speakers described soldiers who were focused on their work but who also smiled, offered hugs and cracked jokes to break the tension while preparing helicopters for missions and while on deployment.
Capt. Kevin Daul, chaplain for the aviation brigade, said many people thought initially it was a "mistake" when they heard the news of the crash and lives lost.
"But then the facts were presented, and there was no escape and no mistake," Daul said. "They were our brothers. It didn't seem real. It didn't seem fair, but it happened," he said.
The deaths were among seven that have involved Fort Riley soldiers in recent weeks. A soldier drowned while duck hunting on Christmas Eve at Milford Lake near Fort Riley, while another soldier died Tuesday when he was struck by a military truck at a motor pool at the Army post.