Team Kadena mourns loss of downed helicopter crew member
KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- Officials confirmed today the death of a technical sergeant assigned to the 33rd Rescue Squadron here following Monday's crash of a helicopter in the Central Training Area, Okinawa.
Tech. Sgt. Mark A. Smith, 33rd RQS flight engineer, died when the HH 60G Pave Hawk helicopter in which he was flying went down during a training mission. The cause of the crash is under investigation.
"Smitty was a total professional and true warrior," said Lt. Col. Pedro Ortiz, 33rd RQS commander. "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, originally from Bakersfield, Calif., joined the Air Force on July 5, 2000, after graduating high school.
"He 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."
During Smith's 13 years of service, he advanced as a structural maintenance specialist before entering flight engineer upgrade training in 2008. Since arriving here in the fall of 2011, Smith deployed twice to Afghanistan with the 33rd RQS, where he participated in numerous missions to save the lives of service members on the ground.
"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."
During this rescue, a photo was taken by a combat photographer who was nearby in an overwatch position, Ortiz said. The photo has since gone viral in the rescue community. Upon returning from this deployment, Smith was presented the Air Force Commendation Medal by then-18th Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Matt Molloy in a ceremony here.
Off the battlefield, Smith is remembered as a caring father, mentor and friend.
"Smitty was a mentor to all the young Airmen and pilots; he was a father figure to those that didn't have one," Ortiz said. "He and his wife took care of those in need. They always had lots of single Airmen over to his house."
He is survived by his wife, Jessica, also from Bakersfield. The couple has two daughters.
"Team Kadena has lost a hero," said Brig. Gen. James Hecker, 18th Wing commander. "Our hearts are with Smitty's family, friends and loved ones. We all suffer through the loss of one of our precious own."
Hecker urged anyone needing assistance at this difficult time - or who knows someone who may need assistance - to ask for help by contacting their supervisor or any Team Kadena chaplain.
The other three crew members involved in the mishap were rescued by emergency responders and received medical care at U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa.
Here in Japan, the 33rd Rescue Squadron is most recently known for its role in providing disaster relief and search and rescue functions during Operation Tomodachi following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated mainland Japan.
The Pave Hawk's primary mission is to conduct day or night personnel recovery operations. It also supports civil search and rescue, medical evacuation, disaster response and humanitarian assistance.
More details will be released as they become available.