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Soldiers' Deaths Devastate Bases

Colorado's Ft. Carson and others struggle to come to grips after a helicopter crash kills 16.

November 04, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

FT. CARSON, Colo. — 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.

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