Three Whidbey Island Naval Air Station sailors, all members of a bomb-disposal unit, were killed Friday in Iraq, the Defense Department announced today.

The three are the first Whidbey sailors killed in the Iraq war.

They were identified as Chief Petty Officer Gregory J. Billiter, 36, of Whidbey Island; Petty Officer 2nd Class, Curtis R. Hall, 24, of Burley, Idaho; and Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph A. McSween, 26, of Valdosta, Ga.

The sailors were assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit 11.

Explosive ordnance disposal personnel are highly trained technicians who are experts in identifying explosive materials and rendering them safe.

After two months of recruit training, disposal experts go through more than a year of training on explosives as well as SCUBA diving and parachuting.

Billiter is native of Villa Hills, Ky. He and his wife, April, have a three-year-old son.

April Billiter is a seventh-grade science teacher at North Whidbey Middle School, where she’s worked for the past eight years. Administrators there called school staff members on Saturday to notify them of the death, Assistant Principal Shane Evans said. That was right after Billiter’s death was confirmed.

The school handed out a written notice to each student Monday morning to tell them about the death, Evans said. The school’s crisis team was on hand.

The letter listed the names of the three sailors who died. It noted that April Billiter is expected to return to school, but we dont know when that will be.

Information about how this happened is very sketchy, the letter stated. We dont have details except we do know they were on the ground in Iraq.

“(April) has close ties with our staff and has good family support here,” Evans said.

Hall’s sister, Brenda Thibeault, said the family was notified of his death at 4:30 p.m. on Friday. She said her parents aren’t ready to speak of their son’s death. They live in Burley, Idaho.

Chukk Fogel, 24, of San Diego, became friends with Hall in Florida where the two were training with the Navy to be explosive ordnance disposal technicians.

They became fast friends. They spent many nights hanging out together, Fogel said.

He loved the outdoors, he said. He loved to go up in the mountains and go four-bying with his jeep. He had a huge jeep with huge tires.

Initially, neither man completed their training in Florida. In 2004, they were transferred to San Diego, where they worked together training sea lions.

Later, Hall went back to Florida to finish his training.

Before Hall left for Florida, his friends threw him a goodbye party. As Fogel filmed Hall, one of his favorite songs — “In This River,” sang by Zakk Wylde of Black Label Society — began playing on the radio. The song is about Dimebag Darrel, a guitarist for the heavy-metal band Pantera, who was killed on stage by a crazed fan in 2004.

“Everybody is giving their tribute to Curt, and this song comes on, and my eyes are welling up with tears,” Fogel said, recalling the goodbye party. “Now I look back on it, and Curt is gone.”

Hall was one of the good guys, Fogel said. He was fun-loving and light-hearted. He loved his friends, and he wasnt afraid of taking risks.

“Were not the guys who go out and blow stuff up,” Fogel said. “We blow stuff up in safe areas, we blow stuff up to save personnel and property. We do it to mitigate the loss of life.”

McSween was promoted to first-class petty officer nearly a year ago, according to a list provided by the Navy to the Navy Times.

In addition to the three sailors, eight Snohomish and Island county residents have died in the war in Iraq:

  • Marine Maj. Megan M. McClung, 34, of Coupeville died Dec. 6, 2006, while supporting combat operations in Anbar province.
  • Army Spc. Jordan W. Hess, 26, of Marysville died Dec. 5, 2006, at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio while being treated for wounds suffered Nov. 11, 2006, when a roadside bomb exploded near his combat patrol in Ta’Meem, Iraq.
  • Army Sgt. Charles Matheny IV, 23, of Arlington died Feb. 18, 2006, in Baghdad after an explosive detonated near his vehicle.
  • Marine Cpl. Jeffrey B. Starr, 22, of Snohomish died May 30, 2005, in combat operations in Ramadi.
  • Marine machine gunner Pfc. Cody Calavan, 19, of Lake Stevens was killed May 29, 2004, in a car-bomb explosion in Anbar province.
  • Marine Cpl. Steven A. Rintamaki, 21, of Lynnwood died Sept. 16, 2004, in military action in Anbar province.
  • Army paratrooper Spc. Justin W. Hebert, 20, of Silvana died Aug. 1, 2003, when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Humvee he was driving near Baghdad.
  • Also killed was Mariner High School graduate Todd Drobnick, 35, a translator for San Diego defense contractor Titan Corp. He died Nov. 23, 2003, in Mosul in a petroleum truck collision.

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