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Army Spc. Justin O'Donohoe, 27, San Diego; Among 10 Killed in Afghan Helicopter Crash

May 21, 2006|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

As a child, Justin Lee O'Donohoe would conjure up Civil War battles with toy soldiers and was known for legendary strategies in leading his Boy Scout troops to victory in capture the flag.

But it was still a surprise to his family when O'Donohoe, a San Diego State graduate, decided to enlist in the Army.

Wanting to see action, he chose to become an Army scout, a dangerous, skilled job requiring him to go out in a combat zone ahead of a main force, surreptitiously locating and providing target information.

"He didn't want to be in the back," said his father, Pat. "He wanted to be in the front."

The 27-year-old specialist was among 10 soldiers killed May 5 in a nighttime helicopter crash in a mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province, near the Pakistani border.

After completing a reconnaissance mission, the CH-47 Chinook helicopter was preparing to take off from a ridgeline when, for an unknown reason, it appeared to drift and strike an object, causing it to tumble down a ravine, Pat O'Donohoe said.

All aboard were assigned to the Army's 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) at Ft. Drum, N.Y., and were part of Operation Mountain Lion, an effort to suppress insurgent activity in Kunar province. The crash is under investigation, an Army spokesman said.

O'Donohoe was a member of A Troop, 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment.

The older of two sons, O'Donohoe was born in Pensacola, Fla., and reared in San Diego, where he graduated from Mira Mesa High School in 1996 and from college four years later with a degree in political science.

But after a few years as a computer lab technician for the San Diego Unified School District, he had become restless and, having taken up kung fu, began thinking about a career in the military, his father said.

"He wanted more excitement and action," he said.

That desire led O'Donohoe to enlist as a scout in the Army cavalry after lengthy discussions with recruiters and an extensive research process, his father said. O'Donohoe proudly pointed out to his father that only two other specialties, Special Forces or becoming a medic, had more requirements.

As soon as O'Donohoe left for boot camp in 2004 at Ft. Knox, Ky., his brother, Kyle, noticed how much Justin enjoyed himself.

He later became a top gunner and was certified as an emergency medical technician.

"You could tell from the way he talked, he loved what he was doing," his brother said. "To him, it was like a big camping trip," getting muddy and "sleeping out under the stars -- something that we always liked to do when we were growing up."

Family and friends remembered O'Donohoe as an active athlete, a hard-nosed soccer defender, a prankster who dripped fake blood down his younger brother's nose to scare his father and a smart student who picked up Russian, some Japanese and even Pashtun.

But he was perhaps best known for his many years as a Boy Scout, serving in every leadership position in Troop 1203 in San Diego's Mira Mesa community.

O'Donohoe was legendary in leading Boy Scout troops in capture the flag, a game in which teams must cross enemy territory to retrieve their opponents' flag, his father said. In one move on a moonless night in 1994, he drifted down a rocky creek, sneaking behind a ring of Boy Scouts guarding a flag in a nighttime maneuver.

"He was an exceptional leader. He would plan the strategy, approaches and defenses," his father said. "He would put them all in the right place and give them their assignments. He'd have been a hell of a platoon leader."

O'Donohoe's last call home was a 10-minute conversation just after midnight a week after Easter. He had no complaints about sleeping under his truck, saying it was "not bad," his father said.

O'Donohoe's parents had told him not to worry about the 12-hour time difference, saying, "Whenever you find a phone, call, and we'll wake up."

"He was a kid worth knowing," his father said.

In addition to his father and brother, O'Donohoe is survived by his mother, Pam; his grandparents, Joe and Liz O'Donohoe of Bella Vista, Ark.; and several aunts, uncles and cousins.


War casualties

Total U.S. deaths* as of Friday:

* In and around Iraq: 2,455

* In and around Afghanistan: 234

* Other locations: 57

* Includes military and Department of Defense-employed civilian personnel killed in action and nonhostile circumstances

Source: Department of Defense

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