Service to be held by the end of April

A memorial service for the three Whidbey Island Naval Air Station sailors who were killed in combat Friday has not yet been scheduled, but it will happen before the end of April, a base spokesman said Tuesday.

No decision has been made on the time, place and whether the service will be open to the public, said Tony Popp, a base spokesman.

Chief Petty Officer Gregory Billiter, 36, and Petty Officer 1st Class Adam McSween, 26, both leave families in Oak Harbor. Billiter’s hometown is Villa Hills, Ky., and McSween’s hometown is Valdosta, Ga.

The third sailor was Petty Officer 2nd Class Curtis Hall, 24, of Burley, Idaho.

The three are believed to be the first Whidbey sailors killed in combat since 1991 and Desert Storm, when two Whidbey A-6 Intruder aviators died in a crash, Popp said.

The sailors’ unit, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11, has established memorial fund accounts with the Navy Federal Credit Union for the men’s families. Donations may be made to any Navy Federal Credit Union worldwide in the name of each sailor.

Nobody connected with Mobile Unit 11 would speak about the deaths or the mood of the unit, base spokeswoman Kim Martin said. She said the Navy also would not talk about details of how the men died because of operational security.

Only a statement was issued on behalf of the base and command of the bomb disposal unit:

“We are deeply saddened at the loss of three of our young sailors. Our condolences go out to the families, friends and shipmates who knew them.

“We are all taking a moment to reflect upon and recognize the great sacrifice they have made to protect our fellow soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen operating in Iraq. All three are heroes and role models. We are keeping their families in our prayers.”

Explosive ordnance disposal personnel are highly trained technicians who are experts at identifying and defusing explosive materials.

It’s a dangerous job. Roadside and car bombs have caused the deaths of hundreds of U.S. service members in Iraq. Unit members often deploy in detachments of 15 or so, and they are responsible for deactivating suspicious materials.

There are about 160 officers and enlisted personnel attached to the Whidbey unit. There are 14 disposal and training units spread around the country.

The last time the base lost someone in combat was in 1991, at the outset of the war to liberate Kuwait.

Lt. William Thomas Costen, 27, of St. Louis, Mo., and Lt. Charlie Turner, 29, of Richfield, Minn., were assigned to Whidbey-based Attack Squadron 155 and were aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger. They were killed when their A-6 attack jet went down.

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station then housed A-6 attack squadrons. The A-6 Intruders since have been retired.

The base still is home to the Navy’s EA-6B radar-jamming jets, and will continue to be the Navy’s electronic countermeasures base when the faster EA-18G Growlers start coming into the fleet next year.

The base also is home to six squadrons of propeller-driven patrol and reconnaissance warplanes.

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