For Lisa De La Cruz, Hawaii is no longer a paradise. Its waves are holding her son.
On Jan. 14, Sgt. Dillon Semolina led his CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crew on a routine training operation above the Pacific Ocean near Oahu, Hawaii. After an accident with another helicopter, the Pacific Ocean engulfed the 24-year-old Minnesotan and 11 other Marines.
De La Cruz flew to Hawaii along with Semolina’s stepfather, Mike, hoping to bring her son back to her Bloomington home — but she left without him after the search and rescue effort was called off.
Five weeks later, Semolina’s parents have stopped trying to make sense of the accident and instead have started prepping for their son’s funeral. On Feb. 26, his parents plan to say goodbye and celebrate Semolina’s life with a 12:15 p.m. service at Cedar Valley Church in Bloomington, followed by a 1:45 p.m. procession to Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
“We’re not waiting … to put Dillon to rest,” Lisa De La Cruz said. “I need to get him home to where he needs to be.”
On Friday, Semolina’s parents were told that remains were found during the recovery. They have yet to hear whether they belong to their 6-feet-4, 210-pound son, nicknamed “Semi.” The cause of the crash is under investigation.
Semolina was born in Buffalo, Minn., and graduated from Delano High School in 2010. He played football, basketball and golf. He was the goofball who laughed at everything and dedicated himself to a health regimen of daily exercise and protein shakes.
As he bulked up, he also toughened up. Growing up, he saw his mother’s strength as a single mom, and tried to be stronger for her, said his stepfather. Semolina would put on a weighted vest and low-crawl on his high school football field to prepare for basic training.
The summer before Semolina headed off to training, he opened up to friend Betsy Gottsacker, 23, about his future. With their feet propped up on a patio table, Semolina would share his dreams of traveling the world and his aspirations for the military.
“He constantly wanted to push himself outside out of his comfort level,” she said.
From an early age, Semolina knew he wanted to be in the military, against his mother’s wishes.
When he decided to finally join, Semolina’s stepfather became his source of guidance. A Marine himself, Mike added his Desert Storm and Desert Shield medals to his son’s dress blues that now hang inside their home.
“I was very honored he went in,” he said. “Through boot camp he shined, he was a company guide. He is the definition of what a Marine is.”
Semolina started off his military career at California for boot camp and combat training. In 2012, he arrived in Pensacola, Fla., where he met Sgt. Christian Morales, 22. Morales and Semolina were inseparable friends, heading side by side from North Carolina flight school to Australia and later Hawaii.
Morales spoke at Semolina’s memorial last month in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
“He always had my back,” he said. Their loyalty to one another continued even after the time Semolina totaled Morales’ Corvette while he was on leave.
Semolina was fast. He quickly moved up the ranks becoming crew chief in Hawaii. But he had plans for life after the Marines.
He had applied to the University of Utah and was waiting for his admission letter to come in so he could be with his wife, Laurie, and begin his studies to become an anesthesiologist. He and Laurie had met during Semolina’s stint in Australia.
“He was the whole family’s hero,” his 14-year-old sister Celeste said. “We all love him very much.”
“He loved flying,” his mother said. “He wasn’t afraid to fly.”
Semolina’s family members now all wear his dog tags.
They are still grappling with time. They wanted more of it. So they go back in time.
In looking back, his mother discovered a message from her son, she said. While awaiting the memorial in Hawaii, Lisa and Mike De La Cruz stood by the shoreline and saw a gathering of sea turtles.
Back home in Bloomington, she discovered a picture Semolina drew at age 12 of a sea turtle swimming in the ocean.
When she flipped it over, the date of the drawing, scribbled in Semolina’s handwriting, read Feb. 26 — the date of the service.
Semolina’s parents have started a donation page on the fundraising site YouCaring for a scholarship for a Delano High School student in honor of their son.