After a fellow soldier died, Army Sgt. Richard Essex watched his friend's family agonize over funeral details. He vowed to never let the same thing happen to his family.
So while he was home for his sister's wedding last October, the Kelseyville, Calif., native gave his family some specifics. If anything happened to him, he didn't want to burden them with decisions.
His car should go to his older brother and his guitar to a friend who wrote music. He made his family promise that the procession would pass in front of Kelseyville High School, from which he graduated in 2008.
When he was growing up, his tongue tangled his words and the charming, blue-eyed boy got most everything he needed with a point and a grunt.
Essex didn't say much, but he knew what he wanted. He wanted to join the Army and fly helicopters.
He achieved his first goal a couple of days out of high school, when he enlisted in the Army. But his eyes — one nearsighted and the other farsighted — made achieving his second goal a bit more difficult.
While stationed in Washington, after returning home from a two-year stint as a tank mechanic in Iraq, Essex put in for a position as a helicopter gunner. He knew it was the closest he'd get to the helicopter's steering stick.
"When this opportunity came up, he jumped at it," Essex's mother, Marion Hopkins, said.
Hopkins and Essex had an agreement. Each time he returned from a dangerous mission he had to get on Facebook and send her a one-word message: "OK."
One afternoon in August, Hopkins answered a knock at her door. She saw two men dressed in military uniforms, one carrying a cross. She frantically slammed the door. The dogs had been howling all day; she knew why the men were there.
When she finally opened the door, the strangers on her stoop told her that her 23-year-old son and 10 others had died in a Black Hawk helicopter crash northeast of Afghanistan's Kandahar province.
"They were bad missions," Hopkins said. "He knew that. We knew that. But we never said goodbye."
Richard Allen Essex was born on May 6, 1989, in Blythe, Calif., where his father, Charles Essex, worked as a prison guard. His parents divorced and he was reared mainly in Kelseyville, north of San Francisco, by his mother and stepfather, Brett Hopkins, along with his two sisters, Stacey and Jennifer, and his brother, Michael.
More than 1,000 people packed Kelseyville High School's football stands Sept. 1 for his memorial, and the service happened just the way he wanted. His friends spoke, the meal he planned followed and everyone used Sharpies to scribble him notes on balloons, which they later released.
"It kind of jerked everybody in this town together," Hopkins said. "In school, everyone knew him."
To John Traphagan III, Essex will always be the fun-loving, goofy friend he shared poetry and teenage shenanigans with.
The friends ran into each other at the Lake County Fair last year while Essex was on leave. They talked about the Army and life. Traphagan had gotten married and had a child since they last spoke.
"He gave me a big ol' bro hug and said, 'Next time I come back, I'll have a gift for you for your wedding.'" Traphagan's voice dropped to a whisper. "The next time he came back, he was in a casket."
Hopkins still gets up each morning, walks to the urn in her living room and talks to her son. Maybe eventually she'll spread his ashes, she says, but not yet.
"I like to say he's grounded," she says through a subdued laugh. "I'm not letting him go."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times