Jeremy Thibodeaux was driving back to Hunter Army Airfield, where he was assigned to B Co., 3rd battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) — known as the “Nightstalkers” — when he heard that a special operations Chinook helicopter had crashed in Afghanistan over the radio. Thibodeaux immediately felt sick — he knew this meant some of his friends had probably died.
His worst fear was realized after arriving on base. Two of his friends, Josue “Sway” Hernandez and Nickolas Mueller, were aboard an MH-47G helicopter, “Arcane 22,” that had crashed during a counter-narcotics raid in Afghanistan on Oct. 26, 2009.
“Upon arriving, I found out exactly who was killed, and I just dropped to my knees, just screaming and crying — kind of pulling my hair out,” Thibodeaux said. “I didn’t really know what to do. You know, two of my best friends were on that aircraft. It was just a really — it was a horrible day.”
On Tuesday, Thibodeaux received approval from the Internal Revenue Service for his newly established non-profit, The Arcane Project.
The idea was born years ago when Thibodeaux was still serving. As older CH-47 models became outdated, he joked that he wanted to acquire one to convert into a private bar for guys from the unit. Years later, Thibodeaux brought up the idea with one of his best friends, Chip Davis, and the idea for a non-profit was born.
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They posted on Facebook requesting leads on a Chinook fuselage, and that’s when Lance Classen entered the scene. Classen works for Protective Group, a defense company that provides armor solutions for various military applications. Now that the US Department of Defense has moved on to MH-47F models, the CH-47D airframe the Protective Group used for designing armor and modifications became outdated.
When Classen saw Thibodeaux’s post, he jumped at the opportunity to give the old fuselage a new life for a great cause instead of getting smashed and discarded. Classen was a crewmember of a Chinook for over 13 years, and like anyone who has manned it, he didn’t want to see it destroyed.
“This is a great opportunity,” Classen said. “Instead of us trying to find some way to destroy and dispose of it, the aircraft that’s already helped protect so many continues doing the same job.”
Thibodeaux plans to rebuild the fuselage to resemble a CH-47G Chinook, the same type of helicopter that Arcane 22 was. The Arcane Project will start by turning it into a memorial and place of healing for gold star families, friends of the fallen, and anyone with a special relationship with the airframe.
Nickolas Mueller’s parents, Sharon and Larry, said their entire family is excited to see the project completed, and it gives them a good feeling inside anytime Nickolas is remembered.
“This project will be one more thing, keeping Nick’s memory alive, along with the rest of the crew we lost from Arcane 22,” said Nickolas’ parents. “Our family loves to hear and see Nick’s memory staying alive, even though it feels like just yesterday — it has been almost 14 years.”
Nickolas’ parents believe their son, Nickolas, will be right behind Thibodeaux throughout the project, helping and encouraging him as he works.
After the airframe is converted, Thibodeaux plans to donate funds to VA addiction and mental health hospitals that offer addiction, mental health, and financial counseling; and provide scholarships and homeless shelters. He said he wants to offer financial assistance to those who cannot afford it. He has needed services like these in the past and wants to give back to his community.
He is now pursuing fundraising for the transportation of the Chinook fuselage. Thibodeaux has raised a little over $2,000 of the $40,000 it will cost to transport the fuselage from Miami, Florida, to its final destination near Toledo Bend Reservoir in Northwest Louisiana. He has a team of volunteers ready to make the dream come true, but they need more funds to make it happen.
Though it’s a lofty project, Thibodeaux is determined and stays true to his unit’s motto, “Nightstalkers don’t quit.”
“I’ve run into hard times in my life after my military service. And I never did quit, no matter how low I was, no matter how many times I hit rock bottom, I kept getting up and kept pushing forward and pushing forward and pushing forward,” Thibodeaux said. “I plan on doing the same thing with this project.”
UPDATE: A previous version of this article stated Arcane 22 was a Ch-47G and has been updated to correctly reflect that it was an MH-47g.
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