Originally created 06/04/06

Army identifies soldiers killed in helicopter crashbanner



SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Four Army special operations soldiers killed when their helicopter crashed in a rural Georgia field during a training flight were experienced and combat-tested aviators.

They shared 31 years of combined service in the Army, along with 22 deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the two pilots on board, Chief Warrant Officer Michael L. Wright, had earned two Bronze Stars and an Air Medal for Valor.

The Army released the soldiers' identities Saturday, two days after they died when their MH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed and broke apart after clipping a wire on a television transmission tower.

The soldiers were identified as Sgt. Christopher M. Erberich, 25, of Oceanside, Calif.; Sgt. Michael D. Hall, 30, of Little Rock, Ark.; Sgt. Rhonald E. Meeks, 28, of Weatherford, Texas; and Chief Warrant Officer Wright, 41, of Indiana.

The Army did not release the name of a fifth soldier, another pilot, who survived the crash with minimal injuries. He has returned home to his family, said Kim Laudano, an Army spokeswoman.

The crew belonged to the 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment - also known as the Night Stalkers - based at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah.

The helicopter crashed in rural Colquitt County, about 170 miles west of the Army post, on its way to Fort Rucker, Ala.

Lt. Col. Manfred L. Little, the battalion commander, said his unit was "deeply saddened" by the deaths. He described the job of the Night Stalkers, who fly special forces commandos behind enemy lines under cover of night, as "inherently dangerous."

"We take all safety precautions necessary to protect our crew, whether in training or combat," Lt. Col. Little said in a prepared statement. "Unfortunately, in the aviation profession, there is no level of planning, training, type of equipment or amount of resources that can completely prevent such types of tragic accidents from occurring."

Chief Warrant Officer Wright, the pilot, had served in the Army since 1989 and previously had been an Air Force air traffic controller and military policeman. He had deployed four times to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq.

"He loved what he was doing, he knew the risks, and he was proud to be a soldier fighting so others wouldn't have to," his wife, Judy Wright, and other family members said in a statement provided by the Army.

Sgt. Erberich, a helicopter repairman and flight engineer, served seven combat deployments - six in Iraq and one in Afghanistan - in his five years with the Army.

Sgt. Hall, an aircraft structural repairman, enlisted in the Army in 2000 and had deployed twice to Iraq and four times to Afghanistan.

"We take comfort in knowing Michael was doing what he loved and believed in, and we appreciate the sacrifice he was willing to make to keep us safe," his mother, Lynda Hall, and other family members said in a statement.

Sgt. Meeks served three combat deployments to Afghanistan since enlisting in 2002. He had been a helicopter repairman and flight engineer. His family described him as "smart, gifted and innovative."

The Army is still investigating the cause of the crash.