Night Stalkers

Five US Army “Night Stalkers” of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) lost their lives in a helicopter refueling accident over the eastern Mediterranean Sea, as reported by defense officials on Sunday. This incident is being handled with heightened sensitivity by U.S. officials due to its occurrence amidst heightened tensions in the Gaza region, which the Biden administration is striving to contain.

According to two anonymous U.S. officials, the troops were deployed in the region as part of the Pentagon’s contingency plans related to the Gaza conflict. This includes preparing for possible evacuation operations of American citizens from Israel and Lebanon. The helicopter, identified as an MH-60, a version of the Black Hawk used by the 160th SOAR, crashed near the southeastern coast of Cyprus. This information was corroborated by one official and notices issued to aviators during the search-and-rescue operation, which has since concluded.

The U.S. European Command, responsible for military operations in the area, initially reported the incident without specifying the military branch or aircraft type involved. The New York Times later revealed the identities of the service members. The report also clarified that the crash occurred during a routine training exercise and was not due to hostile activity. EUCOM officials, in a statement to The Washington Post, confirmed that the crash resulted from a refueling mishap during standard training, adding that more details would be disclosed after the service members’ next of kin had been informed, a process to be completed within 24 hours.

In response to escalating tensions, the Pentagon has increased its military presence in the region, including the placement of two aircraft carrier strike groups, each consisting of roughly 7,500 troops. This move is part of a broader strategy to support Israel and deter potential adversaries like Iran from escalating the situation.

The Fallen

160thSOAR aviators photos
Top row left to right. Chief Warrant Officer Three Stephen Dwyer, 38, of Clarksville, Tenn., Chief Warrant Officer Two Shane Barnes, 34, of Sacramento, Calif., Staff Sgt Tanner W. Grone, 25, of Gorham, N.H. Bottom row left to right. Sgt Cade Wolfe, 24, of Mankato, Minn., Sgt Andrew P. Southard, 27, of Junction, Ariz.

The evolving U.S. relationship with Cyprus, which recently saw the lifting of a long-standing arms embargo by the Biden administration, plays an uncertain role in the presence of U.S. Special Operations troops in the region.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin expressed deep sorrow over the loss of the five service members, acknowledging their service and sacrifice. President Biden, along with First Lady Jill Biden, extended their prayers to the families and friends of the fallen, emphasizing the nation’s shared grief, especially during Veterans Day weekend. President Biden stressed the importance of honoring the nation’s veterans and the duty to support those who serve their families and survivors.

The specifics of the incident, such as whether the helicopter collided with a refueling plane, remain unclear. However, aerial refueling accidents, which involve connecting a rigid tube from the helicopter to the tanker, do occur occasionally.

This tragedy is among several recent aerial incidents involving the U.S. Army. Earlier in the year, nine service members perished in a dual Black Hawk helicopter crash in Kentucky, followed by a collision of two Army Apaches in Alaska, resulting in three fatalities and one critical injury. This led to temporarily grounding all Army aviation units, except those on critical missions, until they completed safety training.