By GENEVIEVE BOOKWALTER
John T. Berger, a 1994 Sonora High School graduate and U.S. Marine Corps pilot who fought in Iraq, died Tuesday night when his plane crashed during a training exercise outside Palm Springs. He was 27.
"The whole air station is just in shock," said Gunnery Sargent Matt Olivolo from the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, where Berger was stationed. "Anytime we lose a Marine it's just like losing a brother."
Berger is the son of Dr. Paul and Kathy Berger of Sonora. He was newly married and did not have any children.
A Marine captain, Berger died when the F/A-18 C Hornet he was piloting crashed during a training exercise at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, about 60 miles northeast of Palm Springs. Cause of the accident is still under investigation. Marine Corps spokesman and Staff Sgt. John DiDomenico said he did not know if Berger tried to eject from the plane.
The Hornet is an attack aircraft that drops bombs and provides support to ground troops during combat, DiDomenico said. The model Berger was flying when he crashed was a single seater.
Berger had just returned from Iraq on May 9, after spending more than three months in the Middle East with Operation Iraqi Freedom, DiDomenico said.
Olivolo said Berger's last flight was a routine training exercise he had done many times before.
"That's why they did so well when they were in theater, they constantly trained," Olivolo said. "That's what Marines take pride in."
Berger graduated from Curtis Creek Elementary School in 1990, and Sonora High School in 1994. As a senior Berger was recognized as a Golden State Scholar in history, an award given to students who meet high statewide performance standards.
Berger continued his education at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., where he earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical science.