January 23, 2007
Art returned in '06 to Iraq as a civilian contractor, to fly with his brother. Both were employed by BlackWater Security Services. In the first half of this year, while flying a security mission, Art's MD-500 helicopter was shot down by enemy ground fire. Art, along with the other 4 security officers on board were killed.
|From The Washington Post washingtonpost.com
Contractor Helicopter Downed in Iraq
|From San Fransisco NBC11 TV nbc11.com
NorCal Man Killed In Helicopter Crash In Iraq
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A Placer County Sheriff's reserve deputy was among five U.S. security contractors killed after their company's helicopter crashed Tuesday in a dangerous Sunni neighborhood in central Baghdad.
Art Laguna, 52, of Rancho Cordova, was working for the private security firm Blackwater USA.
Laguna was one of the sheriff's department's original volunteer helicopter pilots. He helped train other pilots as the program began.
He often assisted the sheriff's department while he was flying Black Hawk helicopters on medical evacuation missions with the National Guard out of Sacramento's Mather Field.
Laguna and his wife were both members of the air ambulance unit. Both were sent to the Persian Gulf in 1990 as part of Operation Desert Shield.
Four of the five were shot execution style in the back the head, an Iraqi military official said Wednesday.
The official -- who, like all others contacted, spoke on condition of anonymity because details had not been made public -- said the four were shot while on the ground. He gave no other details.
A U.S. official in Baghdad, however, had earlier said there was no information to substantiate the report that the bodies had been shot execution style.
The senior Iraqi military official said the helicopter had been shot down, but this was disputed by a U.S. military official in Washington. The Iraqi said the helicopter was hit by a machine gunner over the Fadhil neighborhood on the east side of the Tigris River, while the U.S. official said there was no indication in initial reports that the aircraft, owned by Blackwater USA, had been shot down. The Americans said they did not know what caused the aircraft to crash.
Blackwater USA confirmed that five Americans employed by the North Carolina-based company as security professionals were killed. The statement from spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell did not provide identities or any details of the fighting.
On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad offered condolences for the five Americans killed, calling them good men and saying he had traveled with them.
"We had a very bad day yesterday," Khalilzad told reporters during a roundtable discussion at the embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. "We lost five fine men."
He said he had traveled with the men who were killed and had gone to the morgue to view the bodies, although he didn't say where that was.
Khalilzad did not give more details, saying the crash was still under investigation and it was difficult to know exactly what happened because of "the fog of war."
Another American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said three Blackwater helicopters were involved. One had landed for an unknown reason and one of the Blackwater employees was shot at that point, he said. That helicopter apparently was able to take off but a second one then crashed in the same area, he added without explaining the involvement of the third helicopter.
The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television reported that the 1920 Revolution Brigades insurgent group claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter and showed a video taken by a cell phone of a mass of still-smoldering twisted metal that it was said was the wreckage of the chopper.
Another Sunni insurgent group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, also claimed responsibility for the same attack and posted identity cards of men who were on the helicopter on a Web site, including at least two that bore the name of Arthur Laguna, who was later identified by his mother as among those killed.
The New York Times reported the helicopter went down as it came under attack and plummeted to the pavement through a tangle of electrical wires, but it was unclear if the crash resulted from gunfire, the wires or an effort to land.
Quoting unnamed American officials, the newspaper said the helicopter's four-man crew was killed along with a gunner on a second Blackwater helicopter.
Witnesses in the Fadhil neighborhood told the Associated Press that they saw the helicopter go down after gunmen on the ground opened fire, possibly striking the pilot or co-pilot or both. Accounts varied, but all were consistent that at least one person operating the aircraft had been shot and badly hurt before the crash.
The helicopter was believed to have been flying escort above a VIP convoy on the ground as it headed away from the heavily fortified Green Zone to an undisclosed destination.
A report in the Washington Post, also citing unnamed U.S. officials, said one of the Blackwater victims was killed as he traveled with the convoy on the ground.
The Washington-based SITE Institute, which monitors terrorism Web sites, said in a report on its Web site, that the Ansar al-Sunnah Army published photos of what it said were the U.S. Embassy badge, credit cards and dog tags of one of the casualties in the attack.
Among the dead was Arthur Laguna, a 52-year-old pilot for Blackwater who previously served in the Army and the California National Guard, his mother, Lydia Laguna, of Rio Linda, Calif., told the AP in a telephone interview Tuesday night.
She said she received a call from her other son, also a Blackwater pilot in Baghdad, notifying her of Arthur's death. Laguna said she was expecting to receive more details of the crash Wednesday.
Blackwater USA provides security for State Department officials in Iraq, trains military units from around the world, and works for corporate clients.
"These untimely deaths are a reminder of the extraordinary circumstances under which our professionals voluntarily serve to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people," the Blackwater statement said.
Katy Helvenston, mother of Scott Helvenston, a Blackwater employee who died in March 2004, said Tuesday's crash "just breaks my heart."
"I'm so sick of these kids dying," she said.
Helvenston was killed, along with Jerko "Jerry" Zovko, Wesley J.K. Batalona, and Michael R. Teague, when a frenzied mob of insurgents ambushed a supply convoy they were escorting through Fallujah. The insurgents burned and mutilated the guards and strung two of the bodies from a bridge. The gruesome scene was filmed and broadcast worldwide, leading the U.S. military to launch a three-week siege of Fallujah.
Before Tuesday's crash, at least 22 employees of Blackwater Security Consulting or Blackwater USA had died in Iraq as a result of war-related violence, according to the Web site iCasualties.org, which tracks foreign troop fatalities in Iraq. Of those, 20 were Americans, and two were Polish.
The crash of the small surveillance helicopter, believed to be a version of the Hughes Defender that was developed during the Vietnam War, was the second associated with the U.S. war effort in Iraq in four days.
A U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter went down Saturday northeast of Baghdad, killing all 12 service members on board. The American military in Baghdad has refused to confirm a report by a Pentagon official that debris at the crash site indicated the helicopter was shot out of the air by a surface-to-air missile.
Killed in that crash were: 46-year-old Col. Brian D. Allgood of Oklahoma, 37-year-old Staff Sgt. Darryl D. Booker of Virginia., 43-year-old Sgt. 1st Class John G. Brown of Arkansas., 50-year-old Lt. Col. David C. Canegata of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, 46-year-old Command Sgt. Maj. Marilyn L. Gabbard of Iowa, 49-year-old Command Sgt. Maj. Roger W. Haller of Maryland, 45-year-old Col. Paul M. Kelly, Virginia., 43-year-old Staff Sgt. Floyd E. Lake of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, 29-year-old Cpl. Victor M. Langarica of Decatur, Ga., 31-year-old Capt. Sean E. Lyerly of Texas., 40-year-old Maj. Michael V. Taylor, of Arkansas and 48-year-old 1st Sgt. William T. Warren, of Arkansas.
Relatively few U.S. aircraft have been shot down during the war despite hundreds, perhaps thousands of flights above Iraq. Helicopters typically fly fast and low over populated areas, making it extremely difficult for militant fighters to draw a bead with shoulder-fired missiles. U.S. fighter jets normally fly at very high altitudes and usually can be heard screaming through the skies but remain invisible to the naked eye.
Civilian aircraft that serve Baghdad International Airport use avoidance techniques that included landing in a steep, circular descent from nearly straight overhead the runways. Takeoffs are achieved with the same technique until passenger jets are out of missile range.
The Blackwater aircraft was at least the 14th helicopter to go down since the war began in March 2003. The worst incident occurred Jan. 26, 2005, when a U.S. transport helicopter crashed in a sandstorm in western Iraq, killing 30 Marines and a U.S. sailor.
According to insurance claims on file at the Department of Labor, 770 civilian contractors have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, through December 31, 2006. Additionally, 7,761 civilian contractors have been injured in the same time period, according to claims on file.
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