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Iraq bomb kills 3 from Hill
An explosion south of Baghdad on Sunday claimed the lives of three Hill Air Force Base airmen, marking the deadliest day for Utah since the start of the Iraq war - and the first time a female service member from a Utah-based unit has been killed.
The attack occurred in Al Mahmudiyah, about 12 1/2 miles south of Baghdad, as the airmen - all members of a team of bomb disposal technicians from Hill - began disarming a vehicle rigged with explosives.
Hill officials on Monday identified the slain as Elizabeth Loncki, Timothy Weiner and Daniel Miller. Another unidentified airman from an East Coast airbase was injured in the blast, the Air Force reported.
Loncki, a 23-year-old native of New Castle, Del., last spoke to her family at Christmas. With only two weeks left in her first tour of duty in Iraq, she was eager to get back to Utah, where she and her fiance recently had purchased a home, according to her stepmother, Christine Loncki.
"She was very anxious to come home and see her new house," the stepmother said.
Elizabeth Loncki's fiancÚ, also an airman at Hill, had planned to visit her family in Delaware on Thursday to formally ask her father's permission to marry her. Instead, Jayson Johnson is serving as a military escort for Loncki's body as it is transported to the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and prepared for burial.
An athlete who excelled in sports, particularly volleyball, throughout high school, Loncki was one of only two women in a class of 16 explosive ordnance disposal candidates.
Her family worried about her choice in military career, but "Elizabeth told me so many times, 'Don't worry about me. I'm going to be fine,' '' Christine Loncki said.
Loncki is the 66th female U.S. service member to be killed in Iraq - and only the second from the U.S. Air Force.
The Air Force has lost 30 members in Iraq, but Loncki, Miller and Weiner were the first from Hill to be killed.
The three members of the 775th Civil Engineer Squadron were the first Hill airmen to be killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. The same unit, called often to help dispose of bombs in Iraq over the past two years, has suffered a number of injuries.
At a news conference at Hill on Monday, Air Base Wing commander Col. Scott Chambers said the Hill explosives technicians had been called to help in Iraq by an Army "stretched thin."
Chambers expressed pride in the work done by the airmen, calling them "some of the most highly trained and skilled people we have in the Air Force."
Among that group of exceptional airmen, Weiner stood out, fellow service members said Monday. Chief Master Sgt. Michael Reilly called Weiner "the backbone of our shop."
The 35-year-old technical sergeant from Tamarack, Fla., had served in the military since 1990 and planned to retire in about three years, family members said.
This was the second tour of duty in Iraq for Weiner, who is survived by his wife and 16-year-old son in Utah.
Miller, 24, was the oldest of eight children - 10 including stepchildren, explained his father, Daniel Miller Sr.
He last heard from his son Saturday. "He was excited to be coming home," the father said. "He was in good spirits."
The senior Miller said his son understood the risks inherent in his job. "But he said you just have to live life," the father said. "If you have to go, he said he didn't mind going that way - 'going with his boots on,' is what he said."
Indeed, said Reilly, who had served an earlier bomb disposal tour in Iraq, members of his unit "live life to the fullest, as much as we can, because we don't know whether we are going to be here today and gone tomorrow."
Sunday was the third time more than one Utahn was killed in Iraq on the same date. On April 3, 2003, Nino Livaudais and Randall Rehn were killed in separate incidents in Iraq. On Sept. 6, 2004, Marines Michael Allred and Quinn Keith were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Fallujah.
The three recent deaths - Utah's first reported war casualties of 2007 - bring to 32 the number of Utahns killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a count by The Salt Lake Tribune. The tally includes those who, like Loncki, Weiner and Miller, were brought to Utah by their military careers but whose official place of residence was elsewhere in the country.
The bodies of the three slain airmen were expected to arrive in Dover, Del., early this morning. It is not yet clear whether any of those killed would be buried in Utah. Base memorial services are being planned for Friday, Hill officials said.