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Three Hill airmen killed in Iraq were members of a tightknit group
HILL AIR FORCE BASE - Paul Horton ticks off the names as if reading from a list. Brad Clemmons. Johnnie Mason. Walter Moss.
The community of military men and women who dismantle bombs isn't a large one. So deaths of such specialists affecting any military base - Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, for Clemmons; Fort Campbell, Ky., for Mason; Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, for Moss - affect them all.
Still, some hit closer to home. And now Horton, an explosive ordnance disposal team leader at Hill Air Force Base, has three more names that he'll forever remember.
Elizabeth Loncki. Timothy Weiner. Daniel Miller.
The deaths of the Hill airmen, killed Sunday in Iraq, has sent the very small, very tightknit community of bomb-disposal personnel at the Utah base into a state of immense sorrow and reflection.
Horton said the team of explosive techs at Hill has banded together since Sunday afternoon, when each was called at home and asked to gather at the base, where they were told that three of their fellow airmen had been killed while trying to dismantle a car bomb south of Baghdad.
Horton knew all three of the slain service members. It is, after all, hard not to know everyone in such a small community.
But the tightness of their ranks isn't simply a matter of being from a small group. It takes a certain kind of person to freely choose to work in the field of explosive ordnance disposal.
"People in the EOD tend to have certain personality traits," Horton said. "You have to be able to cope with danger - to do things that other people would run away from." And, he said, to be comfortable in the knowledge that any day could be the last.
That shared attitude made other details inconsequential.
The airmen killed this week came from Delaware, Illinois and Florida. They were single, engaged and married.
They were 23, 24, 35. But each looked about the same in the heavy protective clothing worn when dismantling bombs.
And so, in a male-dominated group, Loncki's gender was irrelevant. It was her professional abilities that allowed her to fit in, Horton said.
"She was a fireball," Horton said. "She had a lot of personality and a whole lot of drive."
Even for those whose military specialty makes them all too familiar with death, the loss of three such devoted airmen was devastating.
"I'd have to say the best word is 'catastrophic,' " said Craig Biondo, the group's squadron commander. "Any one death is a tragedy, so of course we've had three happen here and it's all from the same unit, all from the same scene in Iraq. . . . It's just hit pretty hard."
But if closeness makes the losses hurt more, it also may give the bomb disposal group the ability to better deal with the sorrow.
"My troops here are bounding back, they are rallying around taking care of their two lost brothers and sister who are coming home," Biondo said. "Everybody is coming together to make sure their brothers and sister get treated well and are welcomed back to the States well and brought back to their families."
That is, he said, what very small, very tight-knit communities do.