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Obituaries | MILITARY DEATHS

Army Sgt. Charles E. Wyckoff, 28, Chula Vista; killed by gunfire on Afghanistan patrol

June 17, 2007|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

One of Alina Perez's earliest memories of her younger brother is of him on a beach in Coronado, Calif., running from a shadow cast by an airplane flying overhead and screaming: "Mom, help me! Help me!"

That frightened 5-year-old grew up to become a soldier parachuting into combat out of helicopters -- a paradox that Perez has struggled to come to grips with since her brother's death June 6 in Afghanistan.

Army Sgt. Charles E. Wyckoff, 28, of Chula Vista, Calif., was killed when his unit was attacked with small-arms fire while on patrol in Helmand province, southwest of Kabul. Days earlier, he was among a group of soldiers who narrowly escaped death when they evacuated a helicopter moments before it was brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Wyckoff, who joined the Army in June 2004, was an infantryman with the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

"He loved parachuting," his sister said. "There was something about being airborne, an adrenalin thing. He loved it. He would have his cellphone camera on while he was jumping. He was a crazy kid -- nothing but courage in everything he did."

In Afghanistan on his first combat deployment, Wyckoff found ways to ease the anxieties of his family back home. He tried to downplay the hardships in his letters, phone calls and videos.

"His fun-loving nature was always there," his sister said, recalling one video that showed mountain ranges, some difficult living conditions and Afghan children learning to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

In the video's closing moments, he wrote a message of love to his wife, Erika, on a rock. And to his family, he spelled "I love you" with flowers.

Two weeks before his death, he had an ominous message for his mother, Sylvia: "We're going to the war zone," he told her. He was scared, and his words unhinged her. "Mom, please don't make yourself sick over this," she recalled him saying. "I want you healthy when I come back home." It was a conversation she can't shake. "This has been outrageously painful," she said of the son she calls her "hero."

As a teenager, Wyckoff was a medal-winning sprinter at Chula Vista High School, inspired by the rugged determination of the late long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine.

After graduating in 1996, Wyckoff attended San Francisco State. He transferred to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., graduating in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical science. He was the first in his family to earn a college degree.

"We were so proud of him," his sister said of the boy who never lost his passion for planes. "My mom would take him to air shows. He was always in awe."

After college, Wyckoff scrambled to pay student loans. He took a test to become a Border Patrol agent but didn't receive notification that he had passed until after he had enlisted in the Army. "It was destined for him to be a soldier," his sister said.

Wyckoff was buried Friday at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

A memorial service was being planned at Victory Outreach Church in San Diego.

In addition to his wife, mother and sister, he is survived by his children, Alexandra and Joshua; and his father, Eddie.

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john.mitchell@latimes.com

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