By Gabe Licht
KANEOHE BAY, HI Sgt. Dillon Semolina, a 2010 Delano High School graduate was among 12 Marines memorialized Friday at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay, following a helicopter crash eight days earlier.
During the service, Sgt. Christian Morales spoke highly of Semolina, sharing the details of their friendship and what Semolina taught him.
His first recollection of his friend began with Semolina lacing up his beat-up, blue, Nike running shoes for a five-mile run on a brisk, February day in Pensecola, FL.
“The only thoughts I could muster was that this kid was clinically insane and that there was no way this 6’3”, 220-pound dude actually wore size 9 shoes,” Morales said, inciting laughter from those in attendance. “I would never let Dillon live down the fact that he wore the exact same size shoe as my little sister.”
The two got to know each other quite well, as they had their “fair share of fun and Tom Foolery” in Pensecola, before going on to mechanic and flight school in North Carolina, where they graduated at the top of their class.
They went on to be stationed in Australia together, where Semolina met his wife, Laurie-Anne.
“I remember the guilt I felt at knowing he was sneaking off every night to see his new, French Canadian, Australian, soon-to-be American girlfriend,” Morales said. “We had all joked about bringing back Australian wives to America. Leave it to Dillon to follow through with it.”
Morales said he learned a lot from his fallen friend.
“He taught me the hard-headed Marine way of barking orders and yelling until you’re red in the face isn’t always the best way to get through to people,” Morales said. “He taught me to be committed to the end.”
Morales noted that Semolina had begun to transition out of the Marine Corps. Semolina was planning to become a nurse, according to his uncle, Ryan Bachand.
“Finally, he taught me this,” Morales continued. “While our mission will always come first, family is something that must always take priority in life. Dillon’s commitment to his wife and his family was unwavering.”
Morales quoted Greek philosopher Thucydides while reflecting about Semolina.
“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it,” Morales quoted, adding, “Sgt. Dillon Semolina had no doubts about the inherit danger of those gold wings that got pinned to his chest . . . Sgt. Dillon Semolina left us doing what he loved, with the people he loved, for the people he loved.”
The search for Semolina and his fellow Marines was called off at sundown Tuesday, as the Marine Corps began to focus on “recovery and salvage.”
“The decision to suspend the search without finding survivors is particularly difficult,” said Capt. James Jenkins, chief of staff and acting commander of the Coast Guard 14th District in Honolulu.
Semolina’s family shared their thoughts on the situation on a GoFundMe page.
“Today, our dreams were utterly shattered,” his mother, Lisa De La Cruz, wrote. “Our son, Sgt. Dillon Semolina’s last breath was taken in his bird (as he would call it) doing what he loved to do last Thursday night.”
The post thanked everyone who has expressed support to Semolina and his family, including more than 360 people who raised more than $16,000 to pay for family members to travel to Hawaii and cover other expenses.
“Mike and I, along with Dillon’s complete extended family and friends, thank you for your supporting words just when we think we can’t go on, or a funny memory that takes the pain away for a brief second,” Semolina’s mother, Lisa De La Cruz, wrote. “This community has rallied behind us and has pushed us to be strong. Words aren’t enough! Please pray we can bring Dillon home soon.”
The search began in the late evening of Jan. 14, when a civilian on a beach reported seeing the helicopters flying and then a fireball, according to the Associated Press.
A Coast Guard helicopter and C-130 airplane spotted debris two-and-one-half miles offshore, with wreckage strewn over a two-mile area, Marine Capt. Timothy Irish told the Associated Press.
The helicopters were part of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
The cause remains under investigation.
The Marine Corps will strive to “discover all of the facts” surrounding the crash, said Brig. Gen. Russell Sanborn, commanding general of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.
They will continue the recovery of debris and “any other remains that may be discovered,” he said, “so that we can give closure to those families that are still out there that still want that final piece of the puzzle.”
All four life rafts from the helicopters were found, but were empty, with no indication anyone had been on any of the rafts, based on their condition and the lack of any personal effects, the Coast Guard said.
The search took place around-the-clock.
High surf complicated the mission for rescuers during the initial days of the search, as did a green laser that struck a Coast Guard plane Saturday night near Haleiwa Beach Park, requiring crew members to alter search patterns.
The Coast Guard assumes the best-case scenario when considering how long someone in the right equipment and right conditions could survive, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Sara Mooers told the Associated Press.
“We err on the side of caution because the last thing that anybody wants is to suspend the search when there’s still a possibility of finding somebody,” she said Monday.
Aircrews wear personal flotation devices with their flight suits and get additional training on top of survival swimming training, the Marines said.
People have been found days or even weeks after getting lost at sea, Mooers said.