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Isle Guard aircrews return from Afghanistan after brush with fate

The Wheeler unit was replaced by the crew that was shot down Saturday

By William Cole

LAST UPDATED: 10:12 p.m. HST, Aug 10, 2011

The Chinook helicopter that went down in Afghanistan on Saturday, killing 30 Americans, was part of the replacement unit for the Hawaii National Guard’s B Company, whose members reunited with family and friends tonight at Wheeler Army Airfield.

Had the soldiers with B Company, 1st Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment, stayed in Afghanistan just weeks longer, the ill-fated mission to deliver Navy SEALs and other troops likely would have been theirs, officials said.

Sgt. Bill Sapolu, 34, a flight engineer with the Hawaii unit, was among those who knew pilots and crew on the downed chopper.

Hawaii crews did what’s known as “left seat, right seat” training with the replacement unit, which included Colorado National Guard and Kansas Army Reserve members.

Sapolu was among returning Hawaii soldiers wearing a black arm band with the names of the five crew aboard the downed Chinook, which had the call sign “Extortion 11.”

“It was tough,” Sapolu said, with his wife, Christina, and daughters Kayla, 6, and Karly, 18 months, by his side. “We were leaving on the same day (the crash) occurred.”

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