At only 23, Sara Medina was the backbone of her west suburban Aurora family, her family said.
The U.S. Marine Corps combat photographer was determined, strong-willed and good-hearted, they said, and she aspired to build a better life for herself and her family through service to her country.
“She was in ROTC all four years of high school. She had lots of dreams, lots of aspirations,” said her mother, Cecilia Lopez.
In the last year, Medina got engaged to a fellow Marine and made plans to return home and settle down in Aurora this August, when she was scheduled to complete her last mission.
But bad news came last Tuesday in a visit about 7 p.m., when Lopez was informed that her daughter was among eight soldiers aboard a Marine helicopter that had gone missing during a relief mission after two earthquakes shook Nepal.
The wreckage of the UH-1 “Huey” helicopter was found Friday after days of searching in the mountains northeast of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. The cause of the crash has not been determined.
Officials identified the victims on Sunday.
“I’m very proud of her,” said her mother. “She was a very honorable individual, always willing to help everyone else. By far, she was one of the best daughters ever. She was one of the best sisters. And she was the pillar of our small family.”
Medina had lived with her mother and older brother, Luis. Her father, Miguel, also lived in Aurora. Medina had been stationed with the Marine Corps Installations Pacific command based in Okinawa, Japan. She had gotten engaged a year ago to Devon Henderson, a Marine stationed with her in Okinawa.
“Cpl. Sara Medina made the ultimate sacrifice while assisting the people of Nepal during their time of crisis, and her death is a loss for the state of Illinois and the nation,” Gov. Bruce Rauner said in a statement. “She will never be forgotten. Diana and I extend our deepest sympathies to her family.”
Rauner ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of Medina, a 2010 graduate of East Aurora High School who enlisted on Nov. 29, 2010.
Her relief mission was deployed after a magnitude-7.8 earthquake hit Nepal on April 25, killing more than 8,200 people. A magnitude-7.3 quake struck the country on Tuesday, killing at least 117 people and injuring about 2,800. The helicopter, delivering rice and tarps to Charikot, an area worst hit by Tuesday’s quake, had dropped off supplies in one location and was en route to a second site when contact was lost.
Five other Marines and two Nepalese soldiers lost their lives in the crash. The first three bodies were retrieved Friday by Nepalese and U.S. military teams, and the rest were found Saturday.
A statement from the U.S. military joint task force in Okinawa identified the other Marines who were killed: Capt. Dustin R. Lukasiewicz, of Nebraska; Capt. Christopher L. Norgren, of Kansas; Sgt. Ward M. Johnson IV, of Florida; Sgt. Eric M. Seaman, of California; and Lance Cpl. Jacob A. Hug, of Arizona.
Nepal’s army identified its soldiers as Tapendra Rawal and Basanta Titara, and said all eight bodies were flown to Kathmandu.
Before deploying to Nepal, Medina had served in South Korea, the Philippines, Japan, Australia and the United States, according to her family and the Marine Corps.
According to Marine Corps Times, she had earned many awards, including the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal and the Korean Defense Service Medal.
Her mother awaits word from the Marines as to when her daughter’s body will be flown back to the States. Most painful, she said, is the fact that she would have finally had her daughter home in August.
“She was supposed to come home. She was going to get married. She had a lot of hope,” her mother said. “We’re calm right now. We’re just trying to get by. I’m heartbroken.”
Friends of the family have set up an Indiegogo fundraising site to help the family and her fiance with expenses.
Contributing: Associated Press