Army Chief Warrant Officer Rex Kenyon, 34, El Segundo; Dies in Downing of a Helicopter in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Rex "Chris" Kenyon's passion for helicopters began in high school and never let up until his death last month in Iraq at age 34.

As a 15-year-old at El Segundo High School, he was entranced by the elite fighter pilots in the movie "Top Gun."

For his 17th birthday, he asked for a helicopter lesson.

At 18, he was lured from his engineering studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo by Army recruiters who offered him a chance to fly helicopters as a full-time soldier. He was ecstatic because he had gone to college only after being rejected by the Navy and Air Force academies.

Within two years, Kenyon had learned to fly Huey, Cobra and Apache helicopters, said his father, Rex, a retired Chevron Corp. senior manager who lives in Big Bear Lake with his wife, Beverly.

In more recent years, Kenyon learned to fly the Apache Longbow, a sophisticated copter that uses touch-screen controls instead of switches.

The Apache helicopter he was flying with another pilot Jan. 16 was shot down while on patrol north of Baghdad, killing both. The other soldier was Ruel M. Garcia, 34, of Wahiawa, Hawaii. Both were chief warrant officers assigned to the 1st Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment (Attack), Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Ft. Hood, Texas.

"Every time we would see him, we would ask him when he was going to get out of the Army," his father said. "He would tell us that this wasn't a job to him. He told us he would never get a place to work where they would give him a $30-million helicopter to fly and all the gas he needed. He would tell us he was doing the right thing for him and for our country."

Kenyon was born in Rolla, Mo., and reared in New Jersey; Bakersfield; Pleasant Hill, Calif.; and El Segundo, where he graduated from El Segundo High in 1989. The family moved as his father's career advanced.

In addition to his parents, Kenyon is survived by his wife and 5-year-old daughter, whose names were not disclosed; a brother, Robert, 31, of Valencia; and his maternal grandfather, William Bryant of Illinois.

He "was the child everyone wants to have. He was very loving," his father said. "He was a very happy kid, and a good student and a good athlete."

An honor student and Eagle Scout, Kenyon worked at a Boy Scout summer camp and played soccer, his father said.

At age 14, while playing on the club team, the Bakersfield Bears, he and his team were invited to compete in Europe. The team won in its age group in the Netherlands and took second place in a Norway competition, his father said.

At El Segundo High, Kenyon was a captain of the cross-country team. Coach Terry Crystal remembers him as "a very conscientious student who was very reliable. He was an individual we could turn to for leadership."

Bill Watkins, the former principal of El Segundo High, was friends with Kenyon's parents. "He was a young man who I remember as being very focused," Watkins said. "He was just a nice young man. You'd see him in the halls and he'd say, 'Hello.' "

For his 17th birthday, his parents gave him a helicopter lesson at Torrance Municipal Airport. He was allowed "to hold the controls just long enough to get the feel," his father said.

Kenyon spent two months in Iraq after he left in November, but it was not his first deployment outside the United States. He was stationed in Germany for five years in the 1990s. He also served twice in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he flew an Apache helicopter that carried the security team for a papal visit, and completed a 15-month stint in Korea in 2005, his father said.

Warren Aylworth, an Army pilot instructor at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga., remembers Kenyon as his first flight student in the early 1990s at Ft. Rucker in Alabama. Aylworth taught Kenyon to fly the Apache. "He was a kid who really wanted to learn," Aylworth said.

Just a few weeks ago, the two met up again in Iraq, but this time it was Kenyon who was teaching Aylworth on the Apache Longbow. When Aylworth learned his friend had been shot down, "I knew he had been in a place where he was needed," he said. "He is the kind of folks that make our country what it is. We need more of them."

Kenyon lived on the outskirts of Ft. Hood, in Killeen, Texas, when he wasn't abroad and maintained a 20,000-gallon koi pond at his house, his father said. He would spend evenings viewing a telescope with a global positioning system that helped him find stars and planets.

In six of the seven days before his death, Kenyon spoke for an hour to his parents in California by either instant messaging on his computer or teleconferencing. The night before Kenyon died, he and his father used instant messaging for an hour. The soldier was upbeat, his father said. "He told us that things were getting better. He was getting the bad guys ... and he saw changes in the community in Iraq. He saw children playing soccer again and life returning to normal," his father said.

Funeral and burial services were held Jan. 27 before 600 soldiers. Kenyon's wife chose to bury him at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen, which opened in October.

His father said Kenyon's wife wanted her husband to be buried near their home and in a place that would bestow him great honor.

Although nervous about their son's safety, his parents said they admired his courage and knew he had spent his life doing exactly what he wanted. "All men have that dream, to fly an aircraft," his father said. "But a lot of us don't take the risk to do it."

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