DoD to Pay Travel Costs for Families of Marines Killed in Nepal

Nepalese military service members unload supplies from a UH-1Y Huey in Charikot, Nepal on May 5. (Marine photo)
Nepalese military service members unload supplies from a UH-1Y Huey in Charikot, Nepal on May 5. (Marine photo)

The Pentagon has waived the little-known rule that would have forced the grieving families of six Marines killed on a relief mission in Nepal to pay their own way to the ceremony for the return of the remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

There has been no official announcement on a return date for the remains. Pentagon officials on Friday said that the return might come over the Memorial Day weekend, but Air Force Capt. Karl Wiest, a spokesman for Mortuary Affairs at Dover, said there were no ceremonies scheduled as of yet.

Under pressure from the families and an Arizona congressman, the military dropped the requirement that next-of-kin travel costs be limited to the families of service members who died in combat. The six Marines died May 12 in Nepal in the crash of their UH-1Y Huey helicopter while on an earthquake relief mission.

The waiver was believed to have come about after a phone call to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter from Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford, who has been nominated by President Obama to become the next Joint Chiefs chairman.

"All we know is, word came from on high -- figure out a way to make this happen," Capt. Ty Balzer, a Marine spokesman, said of the rule waiver.

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    Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said the current rules let the military pay travel costs only for the primary next-of-kin and two other family members to the "dignified transfer of remains of a deceased service member or deceased DoD civilian employee who dies in a theater of combat operations."

    Travel costs are not covered for the families of service members who die on disaster relief or humanitarian missions overseas.

    In the case of the six Marines killed in Nepal, "the department issued a memo authorizing an exception to this policy requested by the Marine Corps," Christensen said.

    The Huey helicopter with six Marines and two Nepalese soldiers aboard went missing while on a mission to deliver rice and tarpaulins to areas east of Kathmandu, the capital. An air search failed to find the Huey, but a Nepalese army column two days later found the wreckage in dense forest at more than 11,000 feet about eight miles north of the village of Charikot.

    The Marines who died in the crash were identified as:

     -- Capt. Christopher L. Norgren, 31, of Sedgwick, Kan. He was a UH-1Y pilot with HMLA-469, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, Camp Pendleton.

    -- Capt. Dustin R. Lukasiewicz, 29, of Harlan, Neb. He also was a UH-1Y pilot and was with the same unit as Norgren.

    -- Sgt. Ward M. Johnson IV, 29, of Seminole, Fla. He was a UH-1Y helicopter crew chief with HMLA-469.

    -- Sgt. Eric M. Seaman, 30, of Riverside, Calif. He was a UH-1Y helicopter crew chief with HMLA-469.

    -- Cpl. Sara A. Medina, 23, of Kane, Ill. She was a combat photographer with Marine Corps Installations Pacific in Okinawa, Japan.

    -- Lance Cpl. Jacob A. Hug, 22, of Maricopa, Ariz. He was a combat videographer with Marine Corps Installations Pacific, Okinawa, Japan.

    The two Nepalese soldiers killed in the crash were identified as Tapendra Rawal and Basanta Titara.

    It was Lance Cpl. Hug's family who went to Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., and said they might not be able to afford to attend the return ceremony at Dover AFB, as first reported by the Foreign Policy website. Salmon's contacts with the military resulted in the rule waiver.

    Tristan Daedalus, a spokesman for Salmon, said that Salmon was also gathering support to rewrite the law barring the payment of travel costs to the families of service members who do not die in a combat theater. The families of "anyone who dies in service to the nation" should be reimbursed for the costs of traveling to return ceremonies, Daedalus said.

    Members of all six families were expected to be at Dover. Samantha Seaman, the wife of Sgt. Seaman, told CNN that she "couldn't have asked for a better partner in life" than her husband.

    "He was a great father, he was a great Marine," Samantha Seaman said. "He loved his country and he really wanted to go to Nepal to help those people."

    Cpl. Medina was engaged to be married later this summer to Marine Sgt. Devon Henderson.

    In a tribute to his fiancé posted by the Marines, Henderson said, "Cpl. Medina was my soul mate, she was my better half, she was my everything. There wasn't a single activity we didn't do together. She changed me for the better. Before, I was dependent upon alcohol and lived sedentary. After she came into my life, I wanted to change for the better."

    "The kind of love we had for each other is a love rarely found by humankind. Rest in peace, Sara. I will always love you, my queen."

    -- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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