Soldiers’ Deaths Devastate Bases
They were stoic and said all the right things, but sorrow ran deep here as soldiers came to grips with Sunday’s downing of an American helicopter in Iraq.
Having already lost 25 soldiers since President Bush declared major combat over May 1, this tight-knit army base near Colorado Springs saw another four killed and 13 wounded in the crash.
Garrison commander Col. Michael Resty Jr., looking red-eyed and subdued, tried to explain the tragedy Monday while stressing his commitment to the operations in Iraq.
“Iraq remains a dangerous place,” he said, as cold and fog fell over the base. “Our soldiers are committed to this mission, and they have sacrificed life and limb to accomplish this mission.”
Ft. Carson, which has 12,000 troops in Iraq, has not seen such losses since the Vietnam War.
The lumbering, twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook crashed after being hit by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile outside the town of Fallouja, where tensions between American soldiers and Iraqis run high. Sixteen soldiers were killed and 20 injured.
The soldiers were heading for rest and relaxation or emergency leave in the U.S. They were stationed here and at Ft. Sill, Okla.; Ft. Hood, Texas; Ft. Campbell, Ky.; and the Army National Guard Aviation Battalion in Peoria, Ill.
Ernest Bucklew was coming home to attend a funeral for his mother. Now the family is planning another service.
Karina Lau had hoped to surprise her parents with a two-week home leave.
After the helicopter crash, the base mobilized to handle hundreds of anticipated requests for help from families of the dead and injured.
Judy Woolley, community services director for the base, rounded up chaplains, counselors and financial specialists.
“Our families are concerned,” Woolley said. “They see things happening in Iraq and they worry about their soldiers.”
Master Sgt. John Fouts, a casualty officer, was the first to get the news of each death and injury.
He then instructed the soldiers who were assigned to notify the families. He told them what to say and what not to.
“Right now, I am very busy. I have had no time to stop and react,” Fouts said. “I heard the news and thought, ‘Damn, we took another hit.’ But we got to keep pushing ahead,” he said. “You come in expecting the worst and hoping for the best.”
For many the best was too much to hope for.
Barbara Bucklew said her husband, Ernest, had planned to stop over in Ft. Carson before heading to Pennsylvania for his mother’s funeral.
Bucklew, 33, was the father of two sons, ages 8 and 4.
“My oldest one is just a little numb,” Barbara Bucklew told Associated Press. “He understands his nana and father passed away, but he hasn’t talked about it. The youngest one just doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand the concept of death right now.”
Similar stories of loss and dreams interrupted were abundant across the nation, as families of dead soldiers tried to comprehend the worst loss suffered by the military since major operations were declared over.
In tiny Genoa, Ill., they remembered Brian Slavenas, 30, one of the chopper’s pilots and a former math and chess club wizard.
“We knew it could happen, because we’re all combat veterans,” said Army Sgt. Eric Slavenas, 39, Brian’s brother. “My father was in the Army. My other brother was in the Marine Corps.”
Brian Slavenas, who was 6 foot 5 and weighed 230 pounds, was a former paratrooper attached to a National Guard unit in Peoria. When his unit was activated, he was interviewing for industrial engineering jobs. He could have resigned his post and stayed home.
“It was more important for him to do his duty,” his brother said. “We knew something was wrong, because dad had a strange premonition. It’s strange, but when the Army came and knocked on Dad’s front door yesterday, we knew it was true.”
Brig. Gen. Randal Thomas, adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard, said the state was saddened by Slavenas’ death.
“Our hearts are with the family ... and they have our complete support as they deal with the tragic loss of a loved one,” he said.
In Livingston, Calif., Ruth Lau couldn’t accept the news that her daughter, Karina, 20, had died aboard the helicopter.
“I can’t believe [she is dead] until I see the body,” Lau said. “Maybe it’s a mistake or something.”
Karina Lau, a musician who played clarinet and sang the national anthem at her high school graduation, joined the Army to challenge herself, her family said.
She was based at Ft. Hood and spent the last six months in Iraq. Her time there seemed to mature her, her family said. She told them she was learning not to take for granted what she had in the U.S.
Lau had hoped to surprise her family when she boarded the doomed helicopter Sunday.
In San Diego, Mike Bakwell, vice principal at Mira Mesa High School, remembered another young person eager to serve his country. Paul Velazquez, 29, a former high school wrestler, was based at Ft. Sill.
“Paul was just one of those great kids you remember forever,” Bakwell said. “He worked very hard at every practice, very bright, very disciplined, very good to have on the squad.”
Velazquez enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school in 1992.
“He was very proud that he was serving his country, very proud,” Bakwell said. “It’s such a tragedy; we’re all going to miss him.”
A third Californian, Frances Vega, 20, of San Francisco also died. She was based at Ft. Hood.
At Ft. Carson, Melissa Givens was listening to the news of the crash and remembering the day when her husband was killed in Iraq. It was May 1, the same day Bush announced the end of major hostilities.
She was pregnant at the time and already had a small child.
“I’m just numb,” she said. “I woke up the other day and it had been six months, and I wondered how I had made it.”
Her husband, Jesse, drowned when his armored vehicle slid into a canal.
“I don’t believe his death was in vain,” she said. “But if we leave Iraq before the job is finished, then he did die in vain.”
For those whose family members remain alive and well in Iraq, the crash was a sobering reminder of how swiftly death can come in war.
Bethany Gasperini’s husband, Geoff, is a soldier in Iraq and will be flying on a helicopter today. Needless to say, the Ft. Carson woman is worried.
“The whole situation, war, it’s all so random,” she said. “The women I speak to make it day by day; they do it in honor of their husbands. I’m always so impressed. With honorable men and women in the military, I think you get honorable families as well.”
Times staff writers Jia-Rui Chong in Los Angeles, P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago and Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Those killed in downing of helicopter
The Pentagon, Ft. Sill, Ft. Hood and relatives have provided the names of 12 of the 16 soldiers who were killed in Iraq on Sunday when their Chinook helicopter was shot down by a shoulder-fired missile.
The victims were identified as:
* Pfc. Karina S. Lau, 20, of Livingston, Calif. She was assigned to the 16th Signal Battalion, 3rd Signal Brigade, Ft. Hood, Texas.
* Staff Sgt. Paul A. Velazquez, 29, of San Diego. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment, III Corps Artillery at Ft. Sill, Okla.
* Sgt. Ernest G. Bucklew, 33, of Enon Valley, Pa. He was assigned to the Support Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Ft. Carson, Colo.
* Sgt. Steven D. Conover, 21, of Wilmington, Ohio. His mother, Lorraine Earley, said he was a specialist in field artillery based at Ft. Sill.
* Pfc. Anthony D. Dagostino, 20, of Waterbury, Conn. He was assigned to the 16th Signal Battalion, Ft. Hood.
* Spc. Darius T. Jennings, 22, of Cordova, S.C. He was assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based at Ft. Carson.
* Sgt. Keelan L. Moss, 23, of Houston. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment, Ft. Sill.
* Sgt. Ross A. Pennanen, 36, of Oklahoma. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment, Ft. Sill.
* Spc. Joel Perez of Puerto Rico. He belonged to an Army artillery battalion.
* 1st Lt. Brian D. Slavenas, 30, of Genoa, Ill. He was assigned to F Company, 106th Aviation Battalion, Army National Guard, Peoria, Ill.
* Spc. Frances M. Vega, 20, of San Francisco and Puerto Rico. She was assigned to the 151st Adjutant General Postal Detachment 3 at Ft. Hood.
* Staff Sgt. Joe N. Wilson, 30, of Crystal Springs, Miss. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment, Ft. Sill.
The names of four other soldiers who died in the crash have not been provided.
Also Monday, the Pentagon released the names of two U.S. soldiers killed Saturday in Iraq. First Lt. Joshua C. Hurley, 24, of Virginia, was killed in Mosul when his vehicle was hit with an improvised bomb. Hurley was assigned to the 326th Engineer Battalion, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Ft. Campbell, Ky.
Second Lt. Benjamin J. Colgan, 30, of Kent, Wash., died in Baghdad. He was responding to a rocket-propelled grenade attack when he was struck with an improvised bomb. Colgan was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Armored Division, Giessen, Germany.
Source: Times Staff and Wire Reports