Portraits of Navy SEALs killed in helicopter crash
The American troops who died aboard a downed helicopter in Afghanistan came to the special forces from far-flung corners of the country, some motivated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They were intensely patriotic and talented young men with a love of physical challenges and a passion for the high-risk job they chose.
Thirty Americans and eight Afghans were killed last Saturday when a rocket-propelled grenade fired by a Taliban insurgent downed their Chinook helicopter en route to a combat mission.
The Pentagon on Thursday identified the Americans as 17 members of the elite Navy SEALs, five Naval Special Warfare personnel who support the SEALs, three Air Force Special Operations personnel and an Army helicopter crew of five.
All but two of the SEALs were from SEAL Team 6, the unit that killed Osama bin Laden, although military officials said none of the crash victims was on that mission in Pakistan against the al-Qaida leader.
Here are the stories of some of the fallen:
A severe arm injury during fighting in Fallujah in 2004 didn't keep Matthew Mason off the Iraq War battlefield. Nor did it dull the competitive fire of the avid runner and former high school athlete from outside Kansas City.
Within five months of losing part of his left arm, absorbing shrapnel and suffering a collapsed lung, Mason competed in a triathlon. He soon returned to his SEAL unit.
"He could have gotten out of combat," said family friend Elizabeth Frogge. "He just insisted on going back."
Mason, the father of two toddler sons, grew up in Holt, Mo., and played football and baseball at Kearney High School. He graduated from Northwest Missouri State University in 1998. His wife, who is expecting their third child — another boy — also attended Northwest Missouri.
Mason returned to Missouri in May to compete in a Kansas City triathlon, and took his family to Walt Disney World for the first time this summer, Frogge said.
"He loved doing what he did," she said. "He was the type of guy who thought he was invincible."
Jason Workman had his sights set on becoming a SEAL as a young teenager. He was about 14 when his older brother graduated from West Point. That's when he knew he wanted to be an elite soldier, friend Tate Bennett told The Deseret News. Then came the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and Workman's calling grew even stronger.
"He didn't become a Navy SEAL by chance," Bennett said. "He knew that's what he wanted at a young age and made it happen."
After returning from his Mormon mission, Bennett said, Workman went to Southern Utah University and later joined the Navy.
Across his small hometown of Blanding in southern Utah, flags were flown at half-staff as residents mourned the loss of one of their own.
Even as a SEAL, Workman came home each year to visit, Blanding Mayor Toni Turk said. During his last trip, he led training sessions with local law enforcement, sharing his military skills, and planned to provide more training during a trip home this fall, Turk said.
"He fulfilled his dream and his ambition," he said.
Workman had a wife and a 21-month-old son.
Jon Tumilson got an early start on his preparation to join the SEALS. He had been a wrestler in high school and competed in marathons and triathlons.
Neighbors remembered the Rockford, Iowa, man as a warrior committed to the SEALs, no matter the pain he endured in training or the risks he ran on each mission.
"When he did something, he put his all into it," Jan Stowe, a neighbor of the Tumilsons for more than 30 years, told the Des Moines Register.
Tumilson, who was 35 when he died, "was going to be a Navy SEAL since I can't remember when," Stowe said. "He's like a hero to everyone here."
Another neighbor, Mark Biggs, said people were shocked by his death.
"You just never thought it would happen to Jon," Biggs told the Mason City Globe Gazette. "He's done so many dangerous things."
Friend Justin Schriever remembered Tumilson as "a die-hard at everything. He'd always go the extra mile on everything. He wouldn't let anything stop him from accomplishing something."
Brian Bill had plans for when he finished his military service. He wanted to return to graduate school and hoped one day to become an astronaut.
For those who knew him, such lofty goals were not out of reach.
"He set his standards high. He was that kind of person," Kimberly Hess, a friend who graduated with him in 2001 from Vermont's Norwich University, told The Advocate newspaper. "He was remarkably gifted and very thoughtful. There wasn't anything he wouldn't do for you no matter the time or day."
Diane Warzoha, who had Bill as a student at Trinity Catholic High School in Stamford, said it was no surprise that he fulfilled his goal of joining the SEALs.
"Brian just wanted to do his best, to protect other people ... Challenge did not deter him, ever."
Kevin Houston's mother says he was born to be a SEAL.
"If he could do it all over again and have a choice to have it happen the way it did, or instead work at McDonald's and live to be 104? No. He'd do it all over again," Jan Brown told the Cape Cod Times.
Brown brought up her son in Hyannis, Mass., as a single mother.
Christopher Kelly, whose daughter was a friend of Kevin's, became the young man's mentor and father figure. Kelly, a Vietnam veteran, says Houston would always make time to visit Cape Cod when he had leave even though he made his home in Chesapeake, Va., with his wife and three children. Houston was 36 when he was killed.
He was a football captain at Barnstable High School and joined the Navy not long after he graduated in 1994. He became a SEAL in 1999.
His boyhood friend, Joe Kennedy of Osterville, Mass., told the newspaper that Kevin told him the day they met in elementary school that he was going to be a Navy SEAL. "I had no idea what that was," Kennedy said.
Kennedy said friends on the Cape are planning a memorial service for him. Family and friends also held a service Thursday in Chesapeake.
John Douangdara told his family very little about his duties in the military. They didn't even know he took part in operations with the Navy SEALs.
But his mother, Sengchanh Douangdara, said it was clear the 26-year-old master at arms petty officer 1st class from South Sioux City, Neb., was committed to the military and proud to serve the country that adopted his Laotian family decades ago. Douangdara was Naval Special Warfare personnel, who support the SEALs.
"I know that he loved his job. It was a job he chose," she told the Sioux City Journal.
She recalled her son as "the middle child, very quiet."
Douangdara's parents fled communist forces in their native Laos in 1979, then immigrated to the United States after the birth of their first child. John was born four years later, the third of five children his parents would raise in South Sioux City, a Missouri River town along the border with Iowa.
The oldest child, Chan Follen, said her family's sadness is tempered by pride in Douangdara's service to the U.S.
"We are proud Johnny fought for the country that embraced our family and gave us the opportunity to reach for the American dream," Follen said.
Spc. Spencer Duncan, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bryan Nichols, Spc. Alexander Bennett
Three of the crew members aboard the downed Chinook were from the same Army reserve unit — Bravo Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment — based at New Century AirCenter in Gardner, Kan.
Spc. Spencer Duncan, 21, of Olathe, Kan., had written to friends about how much he loved working as a door gunner on a Chinook helicopter. But The Kansas City Star reported that he also told friends that he missed Kansas sunsets and lying in a truck bed listening to the radio and cuddling with his sweetie.
He joined the military in 2008 and had been in Afghanistan since late May.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bryan Nichols, 31, a pilot from Kansas City, Mo., was eager to get back to flying after a stint handling paperwork as a unit administrator. So when the word went out that people were needed to train for a mobilization, Nichols volunteered.
Lt. Col. Richard Sherman, former commander of Nichols' unit, said one of his favorite memories is flying a pace car with Nichols to the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.
"My happiest and saddest memories are now tied to him," said Sherman, who was in command and working as an instructional pilot when Nichols joined his unit.
"He had no enemies. He was one everyone wanted to be around. You just liked flying with him because you knew he was going to improve as a young pilot and get better every time you flew with him."
Specialist Alexander Bennett, 23, couldn't wait to deploy again after returning from spending a year in Iraq in 2009. So the reservist moved on his own from the Tacoma, Wash., area to Overland Park, Kan., to join Bravo Company.
"He wanted to be part of our unit when it deployed," said Sherman. "He was a typical young kid and liked to go out and have a good time with the guys."
Sgt. Patrick Hamburger
Patrick Hamburger planned to propose to his girlfriend, but had a job to do first: a mission in Afghanistan.
The 30-year-old sergeant from Grand Island, Neb., joined the Nebraska National Guard when he was a senior at Lincoln Southeast High School, but this was his first deployment, his brother Chris Hamburger told The Associated Press.
"He didn't have to go, and he wanted to go because his group was getting deployed. He wanted to be there for them. That's him for you," Chris Hamburger said, adding that Patrick always looked out for his two younger brothers and friends.
He was also the kind of guy who helped his girlfriend raise her 13-year-old daughter from another relationship, as well as the couple's own 2-year-old daughter, and planned to propose marriage when he got home, Chris Hamburger said.
Patrick Hamburger had been in Afghanistan less than two weeks and had arrived at Forward Operating Base Shank a few days before climbing aboard the helicopter to rush to the aid of an Army Ranger unit under fire from insurgents.
"It doesn't come as a total surprise that he was trying to help people and that's how it all ended up happening," Chris Hamburger said.
If someone was sad, Michael Strange tried to make them smile. He loved snowboarding, surfing, scuba diving, running, and shooting guns on the range.
"He loved his friends, his family, his country; he loved making people laugh. He was one of a kind," Strange's brother, Charles Strange III, said outside the family's Philadelphia home, where American flags were planted throughout the neighborhood.
Strange, 25, decided to join the military when he was still in high school, and had been in the Navy for about six years, first stationed in Hawaii and for the last two in Virginia Beach, where he became a SEAL about two years ago, his mother, Elizabeth Strange, told The Associated Press.
But he always told his family not to worry.
"He wasn't supposed to die this young. He was supposed to be safe," Elizabeth Strange said. "And he told me that, and I believed him. I shouldn't have believed him because I know better. He would say, 'Mom, don't be ridiculous and worry so much. I'm safe.'"
Charles Strange said his brother loved the SEALS, especially "the competitiveness, getting in shape and running and swimming and all of that."
He also had two sisters and recently became an uncle. The family last saw him in June, when he came for a weeklong visit for his birthday, his mother said. He was supposed to be back for Thanksgiving.
"It was going to be such a good time," his mother said.
His grandmother Bernice Strange remembered him as a young man who loved cheesesteaks and the Philadelphia Eagles and always brought her flowers.
"He was a wonderful grandson to have," she said Monday night. "God truly blessed me with him."
John W. Brown
If Elizabeth Newlun wanted to have a serious conversation with her son, John Brown, she had to shoot baskets with him.
"There's nothing athletic about me, but I realized that you have to get into other people's comfort zone to get information," said Newlun, of Rogers, Ark., explaining that her son, an Air Force technical sergeant, was a "gentle giant" who "just loved anything physical, anything athletic."
Newlun said her son played football and basketball in high school and went to John Brown University on a swimming scholarship. He had wanted to go into the medical field and become a nurse anesthetist, but decided to join the military after seeing a video of a special tactical unit, she said.
The airman was a paramedic and ready to attend to the medical needs of anyone who was rescued, his mother said.
Arkansas state Rep. Jon Woods went to high school with Brown in Siloam Springs and remembered playing basketball and watching "Saturday Night Live" on the weekends.
"When you think of what the ideal model of a soldier would be, he would be it," said Woods. "He could run all day."
Aaron Carson Vaughn
Aaron Carson Vaughn was a man of deep faith, insisting to his family that he didn't fear his job as a Navy SEAL "because he knew where he was going" when he died.
"Aaron was a Christian and he's with Jesus today," Geneva Vaughn of Union City, Tenn., told The Associated Press on Saturday. "He told us when we saw him last November that he wasn't afraid ... he said, 'Granny, don't worry about me.'"
"He was a tough warrior, but he was a gentle man."
Geneva Vaughn said her grandson, 30, joined the SEALS straight out of boot camp and was already a decorated fighter when he was asked by the Navy to return stateside to become an instructor. But he applied to SEAL Team 6 after two years, earning his way onto the squad in 2010.
He asked the military to return him to combat and shipped out just six weeks before he was killed, Vaughn said.
"He was doing what he loved to do and he was a true warrior," Geneva Vaughn said.
Aaron Vaughn leaves behind his wife, Kimberly, and two children, 2-year-old son Reagan and 2-month-old daughter Chamberlyn.
"They will take away his love for Christ. They will take his dream and his love for the country, and they will know what an amazing man he is," Kimberly said about the children in an interview on NBC's "Today" show Monday.
Robert James Reeves, Jonas Kelsall
Robert James Reeves and Jonas Kelsall had been childhood friends in Shreveport, La., where they played soccer together and graduated from Caddo Magnet High School, Kelsall's father, John, told The Times of Shreveport and KLSA-TV.
Both joined the military after graduation, though the 32-year-old Reeves spent a year at Louisiana State University first, his father, Jim Reeves, told the newspaper.
Reeves became a SEAL in 1999 and served on SEAL Team 6, his father said. During his many deployments, he earned four Bronze Stars and other honors.
Kelsall, 33, was one of the first members of SEAL Team 7, his father said.
He trained in San Diego and met his wife of three years, Victoria, when he was attending the University of Texas out of Basic Underwater Demolition training, his father said.
Reeves placed several American flags outside his home and his neighbors joined in, many decorating their homes in red, white and blue in support of the families.
When he was a Maui High School football player, no one could match Kraig Vickers' intensity on the field.
But off the field? "You couldn't find a nicer guy," his former coach remembers.
"He played middle linebacker, so he was really smart, the quarterback of the defense; and when he put on his helmet, no one could match his intensity and aggressiveness," coach Curtis Lee told the Maui News.
Vickers, who would have turned 37 on Thursday, graduated from high school in 1992 and attended Evangel College in Missouri on a football scholarship. "He decided college wasn't for him," and returned home, his father, Robert Vickers, said. After stints in tree trimming and working as a hotel security guard, he became a certified scuba diver and decided to join the Navy in 1996.
He lived in Virginia Beach, Va., with his wife Nani, who is seven months' pregnant with their third child. Robert Vickers said she is making plans to return to Hawaii because she only has a small window of time before doctors won't allow her to fly.
"He wanted to be buried near the ocean," his father said, adding that the family is awaiting details on when the body will arrive on Maui.
Chris Campbell may have been physically slight, but family and friends said the Navy SEAL was always ready to take on a challenge.
His mother, Diane Campbell, told The Daily News of Jacksonville she remembered him and his older brother learning to ride a unicycle brought back from Okinawa as one example of her son's determination.
"If Chris thought he could, he would try," Diane Campbell said.
Former high school football coach Jack Baile remembered Campbell, 36, showing he was up to a test when he tried out for the team as a smallish junior at about 5 foot-7 and 140 pounds.
"When kids come out for football for the first time, the first thing you're worried about is, are they going to like to be hit, or want to be hit, and like to hit. That was not a problem with Chris. He had no fear with that," Baile told The Associated Press.
"I remember hearing for the first time when he had joined the SEALS, I thought that kind of fits Chris. He didn't have a lot of fear of things and I think he always wanted to try to prove to somebody that he could do things. He was an adventurous-type guy."
Campbell's work frequently sent him on missions out of the country, and his family asked few questions when he showed up with a full beard or arrived for a visit that could only last three hours. In an email to his daughter Samantha sent days before the crash, he wrote that he was looking forward to coming home in November and celebrating her 15th birthday in January.
Chris Campbell told his family that if he was killed in the line of duty, he wanted the local newspaper to write about his life and death, with a request for donations in his memory to the Wounded Warrior Project. The project helps wounded service members recover from their war injuries.
When 24-year-old Nicholas Spehar said he was going to do something, you could take him at his word.
The 2005 graduate of Chisago Lakes High School was a "quiet leader," a star in academics and three sports during his time at the school along Minnesota's eastern border, said Principal Dave Ertl.
"Nick was an active young man, and if he said he was going to do something, he did it," Ertl said. "I could see him as a Navy SEAL and giving 110 percent to serve his country."
Younger brother Luke Spehar told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis that the family does not want to talk about Nick, the second of five children, until after his funeral. "We need time," he said.
Craig Swanberg, 46, of Chisago City, a town of about 4,700, said the Spehar kids played football with his own children.
"The whole family is a down-to-earth group ... nice, everyday, salt-of-the-earth people," Swanberg said. "Nick was a big kid, a powerlifter, who was not as soft spoken as his brothers."
Ertl said Spehar played football and baseball for Chisago Lakes, starred on the swimming team and was an academic letter winner.
"He gave 100 percent in high school," Ertl said. "And he gave 100 percent to our country."
David Carter was a man of faith who was "somebody you could count on."
Yolanda Levesque, a neighbor speaking for the pilot's family, called Carter an outstanding father, "a true Christian" and a patriot."He was our American hero," Levesque said, struggling to keep her composure while reading from a statement at a news conference Tuesday.
The 47-year-old Carter of the Denver suburb of Aurora was a chief warrant officer 4, a full-time Army National Guardsman and an instructor pilot. He was a skilled aviator with more than 700 hours of combat flying time, said Army Guard Col. Chris Petty.
Carter was one of two pilots flying the Chinook CH-47D on Saturday when it was apparently shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by an insurgent.
He had a passion for training young aviators, Petty said, and leaves behind "much more than dozens" of new pilots he taught.
"There's a big hole in our organization today," Petty said.
Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards said Carter was "somebody you could count on."
"Every time you needed a launch, a helicopter for a state mission, Dave Carter was there," Edwards said.
Carter, of the Denver suburb of Aurora, is survived by his wife, Laura, and two children, Kyle and Kaitlen.
Carter's sister-in-law Marie Krizanovic described him as a "gentle-souled person."
"Happy-go-lucky, gentle-natured," Krizanovic said. "He had a very strong spiritual faith. He loved flying."
David and Laura Carter were set to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in December.
Jared William Day
Jared William Day grew up in the Salt Lake City area and joined the Navy in 2002 "because he loved his country, the people who live here, and the freedoms we all have," his family said.
The 28-year-old Navy SEAL had participated in multiple missions around the world, and was an Information Systems Technician First Class, a family statement said.
"He was truly special, not only to our family, but to this country," his family said. "Jared's memory will live in our hearts forever."
His family also described him as being "determined with a fierce sense of humor."
Day rose to become an elite member of a Naval Special Warfare unit where he served as tactical commander.
Day's family attended a ceremony for the soldiers earlier this week at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where they were given a few minutes with President Barack Obama.
Daniel L. Zerbe
Friends of Tech Sgt. Daniel L. Zerbe remembered the 28-year-old as driven but funny and easy to get along with.
Zerbe, a 2001 graduate of Red Lion Area High School in central Pennsylvania, did not say much about his Air Force duties, former schoolmate Jean Martin told The York Dispatch.
"He could make you laugh no matter what," said Martin, who dated him after high school.
John Smeltzer, a friend of Zerbe's, recalled playing football together starting in junior high, as well as fishing, snowboarding and engaging in other outdoor pursuits.
Martin said Zerbe wasn't the biggest player on the football or wrestling teams, but he worked hard to achieve his goals.
When Smeltzer last spoke with him in June, they talked about life and the birth of Smeltzer's daughter. He has struggled to come to terms with his friend's death.
"You wouldn't think this is going to come," he said.
The Associated Press left messages for Zerbe's relatives.
Top of his class. Quarterback. Team captain.
John Faas' football coach had encouraged the natural-born leader to consider applying to a service academy to become a military officer, but Faas had decided in middle school that he wanted to become a Navy SEAL.
The 31-year-old from Minneapolis never wavered about his goal, joining the elite fighting force and becoming a chief petty officer.
"This is where John felt he was called," said Ron Monson, the football coach at Minnehaha Academy, a private Christian school in Minneapolis where Faas graduated as the 1998 class valedictorian.
The coach said Faas never showed bravado and didn't fit the Hollywood stereotype of a SEAL. Instead, the son of Gretchen and Robert Faas of Minneapolis, was the guy who always stood up for his fellow students.
"John was a man of unquestionable integrity and courage, as were those he served with," his family said in a statement. "He became a SEAL to serve his country and to make the world a better place for those less fortunate."
Heath M. Robinson
Before he even graduated from Michigan's Petoskey High about 225 miles northwest of Detroit, Heath M. Robinson was the type of guy people could picture becoming a Navy SEAL.
"He was hardworking, dedicated and loyal," athletic director Gary Hice told the Detroit Free Press. "And those are all attributes for a Navy SEAL. He was a nice young man."
Robinson joined the military after high school, according to the Petoskey News-Review, and his service record shows he served in six Special Warfare Units from 2000 to 2011.
Robinson's father declined to comment about his son's death when reached by The Associated Press.
Petoskey Principal Jim Kanine said Robinson and his family would be remembered in prayers.
"We understand that's the ultimate sacrifice a human being can make," Kanine said.
Thomas Ratzlaff wanted to be a Navy SEAL ever since he was a young boy growing up in Green Forest, Ark.
"He did what he loved and died defending those he loved and those who loved him," his nephew, Jeff Adams, said as he read a statement from the family.
When Ratzlaff visited his hometown in northwest Arkansas, his late father would bring him by the log cabin restaurant where he ordered an egg, sausage and wheat toast every morning.
"The whole town was proud of him," said Loree Blackburn, who runs that restaurant.
Now, the community of 2,700 remembers Ratzlaff with flags flying at half-staff.
Ratzlaff, 34, would have been grateful for the outpouring of support for his family, his nephew said. But he "would want the focus to remain on the cause for which he made the sacrifice, not the sacrifice itself."
He had two sons and a wife expecting their third child — a girl — in November. He also leaves behind a sister and mother.
"As a Navy SEAL team member, my uncle was trained to keep a low profile and to do his job," Adams said.
Before he became a U.S. Navy SEAL, Darrik Benson was known as a good student and an all-around nice kid in Angwin, a small town in California's Napa Valley where he grew up.
At the end of his latest tour of duty next month, he planned to marry his girlfriend, Kara, and spend time with his 2-year-old son, Landon.
"She's very broken up about this," Benson's mother, Claudia Benson, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
Benson had recently earned his commercial pilot's license to possibly fly airplanes after his military service ended.
Linda Hansel, who taught Benson in eighth grade, remembered him as bright, outgoing and just a touch mischievous.
Jesse Pittman made it known he wanted to become a SEAL during his second summer working as a seasonal firefighter for California's forestry department. He trained in his off-time with an ex-SEAL to prepare.
He was a hard worker who shared a love of hotrods with his father and older brother, and he did odd jobs at an automotive repair shop in his hometown of Willits, Calif., to learn how to build and repair cars.
Despite being a leader on his fire crew and having a good career ahead of him as a firefighter, Pittman made it clear becoming a SEAL was his passion.
"He liked to be challenged, and I think that challenge is what drew him to both of those careers," his friend Chris Wilkes told the San Francisco Chronicle. "When he told me he wanted to be a Navy SEAL, I told him he had been watching too much TV. But he said, 'No, I can do that.'"
Louis Langlais was originally from Santa Barbara, Calif., but lived in Virginia with his wife and two sons.
He was thrust into the national spotlight in April 1997 when he attempted to parachute into Pro Player Stadium dressed as the mascot of the Florida Marlins, the Virginian-Pilot reported. Winds tore off the costume and Langlais landed outside while someone else took his place inside, the paper reported.
Langlais enlisted in the Navy in June 1986. In 1989, he reported to SEAL training in Coronado, Calif., and reported to a West Coast-based SEAL team until 1997. He was on the Navy parachute team until February 2000 and later joined several East Coast-based SEAL teams.
Langlais won numerous medals and commendations for his service and was remembered by countless friends in an outpouring of support on Facebook.
Andrew Harvell, originally from Long Beach, Calif., lived in Southern Pines, N.C., with his wife, according to the Fayetteville Observer.
Harvell was assigned to the 24th Special Tactics Squadron at nearby Pope Field, where a private memorial was held Thursday.
While not as prominent as the elite SEALs, the unit that Brown belonged to is also renowned for its rigor and skill.
Hand-picked after joining the Air Force, candidates for the Special Tactics Squadron must successfully complete three years of arduous training before they can be assigned to a unit, according to retired Air Force Col. John Carney.
"Out of 100 people who go into that rigorous training, maybe 10 of them will make it out," said Carney, who is credited with creating the special tactics units in the 1980s.