ST. CLOUD — For members of the Minnesota National Guard, the deaths of their three comrades in a helicopter crash felt more like the death of family members.
Standing in an Army Aviation Support Facility hangar in St. Cloud on Saturday, Dec. 7, Maj. Nathan Burr said that he and his fellow service members are still trying to process the events the week's event.
"We're heartbroken," Burr said. "There's a lot of numbness because it's hard to believe. Things like this don't happen to us."
The Guard on Saturday confirmed the identities of the three as Sgt. Kort M. Plantenberg and Warrant Officers James A. Rogers, Jr. and Charles P. Nord. All had been assigned to the St. Cloud-based Company C, 2-211th General Support Aviation Battalion.
At around 2 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 5, the three took off in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter in what the Guard described as a routine maintenance flight. Shortly after takeoff, they sent out a mayday signal before they lost contact with the Guard.
Moments later, the Guard said the helicopter crashed in an open field southwest of St. Cloud near Marty, Minn. Using location data provided by the Guard, the Minnesota State Patrol and a host of local public safety agencies quickly worked to search for the craft and rescue its crew.
They found the copter at approximately 4:15 p.m., according to a statement from the Guard, and determined soon after that all three on board had died. An investigation into the cause of the crash is ongoing.
"To the families of the three soldiers, there is nothing that I can say that will take away or lessen the pain you are feeling," Maj. Gen. Jon Jensen said during a Saturday press conference.
"What I can tell you is that you are not alone," the state Guard's senior officer continued.
Born in Breckenridge, Minn., 30-year-old Nord graduated in 2007 from Perham High School, according to the Guard, and in 2011 earned a degree in construction electricity from Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead. He enlisted in the state Army National Guard in 2011 as an air crewman and in 2016 became a warrant officer and Black Hawk medical evacuation pilot.
Nord is survived by his wife, Kaley, and two-year-old daughter Lydia, according to the Guard, as well as an expected child. He lived most recently in Perham.
Rogers, born in Madelia, Minn., graduated from St. James High School in 2010, according to the Guard. The 28-year-old enlisted in the state Army National Guard a year earlier as a field artillery specialist and in 2013 became a warrant officer and Black Hawk pilot. He was most recently a resident of Winsted, Minn.
Plantenberg, born in St. Cloud, was a graduate of the Albany Area High School class of 2009 and in 2016 enlisted with the state army National Guard as an aircraft electrician. An Avon, Minn. resident and member of the state Guard's biathlon team, the 28-year-old had been preparing to begin the state warrant officer in March before attending flight school, according to the Guard.
The Guard said Saturday that the unit the three belonged to returned to the United States in May from a nine-month deployment to the Middle East, where it took part in medical evacuations in support of operations Spartan Shield and Inherent Resolve. Rogers, Nord and Plantenberg were all deployed for the mission.
Burr, to whom the three reported during their deployment, described them as "amazing" individuals with distinct personalities. He remembered Rogers for his intelligence and Plantenberg for his athletic prowess. Nord, he said, possessed a sense of humor that can help to lift the spirits of a unit during a lengthy deployment.
"They were incredible people," said Sgt. Shawn Schmidtl, lamenting the loss of who he said were three promising men.
In a statement, Plantenberg's family described him as "a kind, loving son and brother as well as an incredibly dedicated and loyal friend, neighbor, correctional officer and Guardsman.
"It’s impossible to envision life without him," the family said.
Following the deaths of the three, several Guard members said that they had received an outpouring of sympathetic messages from national and foreign military services. Minnesota state and U.S. elected officials have expressed their grief as well in statements to the press.
On Friday, Dec. 6., Gov. Tim Walz — a 24-year veteran of the Army National Guard — ordered government offices throughout the state to lower their U.S. and Minnesota flags to half-staff in mourning. They are to remain that way until Monday, Dec. 9 at 2:05 p.m., the approximate time of the crash.
Officials from the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center in Fort Rucker, Ala., are leading the investigation with support from local law enforcement agencies. During Saturday's press conference at the aviation facility, Col. Shawn Manke said that the Army officials are required to investigate military accidents that result in death.
Such investigations do not have set timelines, he said.
Maintenance flights, Manke said, typically involve the minimum number of crew members necessary to pilot a given craft. The minimum number of people needed to fly a Black Hawk, one of the Army's most widely used helicopters, is three.
Rogers and Nord would have been the ones to pilot the helicopter on the day of the crash, Manke said, with Plantenberg on board as a crew member. It is unclear at this time who acted as the lead pilot for the flight.
As a result of the crash, Jensen said that all of the state Guard's Black Hawk helicopters have been grounded and will remain grounded during the early stages of the investigation. He said that the order to ground the copters was a standard procedure and that he expected them to be "flying again shortly."
Jensen said the Guard's next steps will be to attend to the victim's families.