Pawlenty visits troops in Iraq; two more Minnesotans dead

Pawlenty in Iraq
Gov. Pawlenty meets with members of the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division of the National Guard Sunday at Contingency Operating Base Basra. Pawlenty was traveling with the governors of Missouri and Nevada.
Photo by Sgt. Joe Roos, U.S. Army

Two Minnesotans were reported dead over the weekend as a result of the conflict in Afghanistan.

Military officials say Air Force Captain Thomas Gramith of Eagan was killed when his fighter jet crashed on Friday. And, according to a Caringbridge site, Ben Kopp of Rosemount, who was wounded in battle on July 10th, died Saturday.

The two deaths bring the recent number of Minnesota war-related deaths to five. On Thursday, an attack killed three members of the Minnesota National Guard's 34th Red Bull Infantry Division.

Gramith, the Eagan man, was part of the Fourth Fighter Wing Squadron, based at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.

The unit provides close air support to ground troops in combat. A spokesman for the US Airforce said the Gramith and 26-year old Capt. Mark R. McDowell of Colorado Springs, Colo. died when their fighter jet crashed in Eastern Afghanistan.

They say the crash was not caused by enemy fire. It happened at about 3 a.m. Kabul time Saturday.

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Officials said a team of coalition and US forces responded to the crash, immediately securing the area and recovering the bodies of the two airmen.

Family members for Thomas Gramith did not return calls seeking comment.

An Airforce spokesman for the Fourth Fighter Wing says the family was expected to travel to Dover Airforce Base in Delaware Sunday to meet his body.

Staff Sgt. Shawn Jones said the Fourth Fighter Wing is mourning the loss of two of its crew.

"From the Fourth Fighter Wing, our thoughts and prayers go out to their families and the airmen of the Fourth Fighter Wing will surely miss these proud airmen."

The unit has lost four crewmembers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a conference call from Kuwait Sunday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he couldn't comment on Gramith's death because the investigation was still in progress. More details are expected to be released this week.

Pawlenty met with with members of the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division in Iraq this weekend, the unit that suffered the death of three members Thursday.

Pawlenty has been traveling in the Middle East since Friday with a group of other governors. As part of his tour, Gov. Pawlenty said he met with members of the unit to thank them for their service.

"We are grateful; for their sons, for the mission that they were willing to undertake and the fact that they were willing to serve our country with incredible courage and honor and strength," Pawlenty said. "It was very clear how their unit felt about them as soldiers and as people."

The trip was organized weeks before Thursday's attack on the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division.