Lance Cpl. Donovan Davis, 21; Sgt. Alec Langen, 23; Capt. Benjamin Moulton, 27; Capt. Jack Casey, 26; and Capt. Miguel Nava, 28, died when their aircraft went down near a mountainous part of the state east of San Diego during a routine training flight, according to the service.
They were flying from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, when they crashed about 80 miles from their destination. All three officers were pilots, while Davis and Langen were crew chiefs.
The Marine Corps notified the family members of the deceased in the days following the incident as fellow Marines guarded their remains overnight during recovery efforts and inclement weather.
Military.com spoke to Langen's family Friday. Through tears, they remembered the intelligent, "goofy" young man who was full of life, built military structures out of Legos when he was little, and was driven to join the Marine Corps because of his dad.
"He love the Marine Corps," Langen's father, Steve -- who also served as a CH-53 Super Stallion crew chief -- told Military.com. "He always said that's what he wants -- what Daddy did -- and he did it, and he did it better.
"And being a part of this tragic accident with four fellow Marines, we are restful in knowing that he wasn't alone and that he was with the people he cared about most … He was with his brothers," Steve Langen added.
Langen, who is also survived by his mother, brother and sister, had been married for only a month when he was killed, his family said.
"I looked up to him in so many ways," said Langen's sister, Elizabeth. She recalled driving up with him to his recent wedding, listening to Zach Bryan country music, a memory she said she will cherish. "We had a lot of life plans and things he was supposed to be there for. But he taught me how to live; he taught me so many things that I'll cherish forever."
His family said his 17th birthday present to himself was arranging for his parents to meet a Marine recruiter. They told Military.com the same recruiter called them Friday to offer support, something they said the Marine Corps has been providing generously.
Military.com also spoke with Capt. Miguel Nava's father on Friday. He said that the Corps has also been providing support to his family in the aftermath of the incident.
"Miguel was a great human being, driven," Javier Nava told Military.com. "He was committed to his wife and son, and family -- mom and dad and brother. … He was just an absolutely beautiful human being."
Nava, who was from Traverse City, Michigan, joined the Marine Corps in 2017 and was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal and Sea Service Deployment Ribbon. Javier Nava said that his son always wanted to fly, and that the Marine Corps was a venue to do that after he had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.
"He was an excellent American and committed to his country as well," he said of his son.
Military.com attempted to contact the loved ones of all the deceased, but could reach only the Langen and Nava families on Friday. All five service members belonged to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, a subordinate unit to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing out of California. The squadron goes by the name "Flying Tigers."
"We have been confronted with a tragedy that is every service family's worst fear," Lt. Col. Nicholas Harvey, commanding officer of HMH-361, said in a statement Friday. "Our top priority now is supporting the families of our fallen heroes, and we ask for your respect and understanding as they grieve."
"The Flying Tigers family stands strong and includes the friends and community who have supported our squadron during this challenging time. We will get through this together," he added.
The incident is currently under investigation.
The doomed Super Stallion's last recorded location was around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday local time, Mike Cornette, a spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told Military.com. Open source flight tracking data reviewed by Military.com showed the Super Stallion -- which had operated under the call sign Tiger 11 -- flying west toward San Diego when it ceased reporting late Tuesday.
Early the next morning, the San Diego Sheriff's Department got a call that the Super Stallion was reported "overdue" at MCAS Miramar. Search and rescue efforts began within hours of notification, and were made difficult by snow and rain in the area, a department spokesperson said. The search effort included elements from the Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Border Patrol, San Diego County Sheriff's Department, and Marine Corps fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft.
The wreckage of the Super Stallion was located at 9:08 a.m. local time Wednesday. The five Marines were confirmed deceased the following day.
"Their fellow Marines have remained by their side as Marines do and took shifts throughout the night at the mishap site, keeping watch over our fallen despite the hazardous weather conditions," Col. James Ford, operations officer with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, said Thursday night in a statement to reporters. "Our fellow Marines were and continue to be guarded by their brothers and sisters."
The Super Stallion helicopter has been involved in several high-profile and deadly crashes since its introduction to the military in the 1980s. In 2016, two Super Stallions crashed into each other off the coast of Hawaii, killing 12 total service members. Two years later, four Marines from the 3rd MAW were killed when their helicopter crashed in California.
Since 2012, the CH-53E Super Stallion has been involved in 16 "Class A" mishaps, according to data provided to Military.com by the Navy Safety Center on Friday, meaning the incident killed or permanently disabled a service member, or that damage to Pentagon property exceeded $2.5 million. The number of Class A incidents involving the CH-53E Super Stallion in the last decade was first reported by Marine Corps Times.
Military.com asked the Marine Corps whether it still has confidence in the airframe.
"Yes," Capt. Alyssa Myers, a spokesperson for the Marine Corps said. "The CH-53E Super Stallion is a highly capable military aircraft that presents versatility across a range of operations. At this time, our priority is providing support to the families of our fallen Marines. Our deepest condolences go out to the families and friends of all those impacted by this tragedy."
Davis, a Kansan, joined the Marines in 2019 and was promoted to lance corporal last month. He earned a Sea Service Deployment ribbon, among other awards.
Moulton, who is from Idaho, and Casey, of New Hampshire, commissioned into the Marine Corps in 2019. They were both promoted to captain mid-2023, and each had received the National Defense Service Medal.
President Joe Biden said Thursday that he and first lady Jill Biden are "heartbroken at the loss" of the five Marines.
"As the Department of Defense continues to assess what occurred, we extend our deepest condolences to their families, their squadron, and the U.S. Marine Corps as we grieve the loss of five of our nation's finest warriors," the statement said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin offered a similar sentiment and said that, "as the Marine Corps investigates this deadly crash, it is yet another reminder that across our nation and the world our selfless service members put their lives on the line every day to keep our country safe."