By Mary Slosson
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Three of the seven U.S. Marines killed in the collision of two military helicopters during a training exercise along the California-Arizona border had previously served in Iraq, Afghanistan or both, the Marine Corps said on Friday.
Two light attack helicopters, an AH-1W Cobra and a UH-1Y Huey, were conducting nighttime training operations when they struck one another on Wednesday night and plunged to the ground.
The cause of the accident remained under investigation, and Marine Corps officials declined to say if darkness, dust or weather conditions were believed to be factors.
Five Marines aboard the Huey and two aboard the smaller Cobra copter died in the crash, officials said. No other aircraft were flying with the two helicopters that crashed, and nobody on the ground was involved in the accident.
There were no survivors.
The two choppers belonged to 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, headquartered at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, but both were based at nearby Camp Pendleton, in Southern California.
The types of helicopters involved in the crash typically fly at very low altitude in combat as they are designed to "provide close-to-the-ground air support for Marines on the ground if they're called in to assist," said First Lieutenant Maureen Dooley, a spokeswoman for the 3rd Marine Wing.
Television images showed a scorched debris field in the desert where the stricken helicopters fell.
Among the dead were three combat veterans, identified on Friday as: Major Thomas Budrejko, 37, who served three deployments in Iraq and one in Afghanistan; Sergeant Justin Everett, 33, who served one deployment in Iraq; and Captain Nathan Anderson, 32, who served three deployments in Iraq.
The other four were identified as: Captain Michael Quin, 28, Captain Benjamin Cerniglia, 31, Lance Corporal Corey Little, 25, and Lance Corporal Nickoulas Elliott, 21.
Six of the Marines killed were from Pendleton. The seventh, Anderson, was from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, close to the crash site.
Dooley said the crash investigation would likely take months to complete.
More than a dozen military personnel have been killed in recent years from accidents involving the same types of helicopters that crashed on Wednesday night, most of them based in the San Diego area.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Tim Gaynor)