Only one fixation could interrupt a teenage Keith Yoakum while he worked as a delivery boy for a Hemet automobile repair shop. Planes frequently whizzed by from the nearby Hemet-Ryan Airport, and on each ascent Yoakum would drop everything and rush to gaze at the planes until they blurred into dots in the sky.
"Every doggone time, he would run out and look at the planes," said his then-boss Joe Riedell. "I asked him, 'If you like airplanes, why not fly?' "
Yoakum responded, "I love them, but I've been told I don't have enough smarts to fly."
Riedell persuaded Yoakum to begin flying, and his love eventually spawned a decorated military career in which he received numerous awards, including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
The 41-year-old Army chief warrant officer was one of two soldiers killed Feb. 2 when their Apache helicopter crashed in Taji, Iraq, north of Baghdad. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division at Ft. Hood, Texas.
"He made us all stand a little taller and be the best that we can be," said Yoakum's brother Mark. "He wasn't the wind beneath our wings, but he was our wings."
Keith Yoakum grew up in Hemet and enlisted in the Army a short time after graduating from Hemet High School in 1984.
His military career spanned two decades. Although he was nominated to fly for the Army's prestigious Golden Knights parachute team two years ago, he turned down the opportunity in order to go to Iraq. He returned in September, and had more than 300 hours of combined flying time.
"He was such a good man," said his wife, Kelly, who lives in Alabama. "He was a very good father. He was very proud of his daughters [Katelynn, 16; and Kirstee, 14], and with what little time he had, he tried to give it to them."
Kevin Yoakum, his fraternal twin, recently retired from the military. The three brothers purchased 51 acres in Alabama and had started building a hangar along with a landing strip.
"He was teaching his daughters how to fly," his wife said. "That was his dream, to own his own grass strip. Flying was his passion. And he loved his brothers and wanted to do as many things as possible together."
In addition to his wife, daughters and brothers, Yoakum is survived by his parents, George and Phoebe of Twentynine Palms, Calif.; and a sister, Maryann Brown.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.