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Obituaries | MILITARY DEATHS

Army Chief Warrant Officer Cornell Chao, 36, Fullerton; killed along with co-pilot in downing of helicopter in Iraq

March 04, 2007|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

Army Chief Warrant Officer Cornell Chao made friendships to last a lifetime.

The Los Angeles native was a quiet, steady guy who in 18 years in the Army fought two wars in Iraq, rising from infantry grunt to the pilot of an Apache helicopter.

He was spared once: In 2003, an artillery round exploded just behind his head during a gun battle, and Chao survived only because an M-16 he had placed behind his seat took the impact.

But on Jan. 28, the 36-year-old Fullerton man was killed along with his co-pilot, Capt. Mark T. Resh, 28, of Pittsburgh when their Apache was shot down and crashed north of Najaf, Iraq, south of Baghdad. Both were assigned to the 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division at Ft. Hood, Texas.

In a letter home Jan. 20, he told his mother not to worry. He said he had protected many American soldiers. He said the missions were dangerous but that he would be all right.

"He was such a kind and loving person," said his mother, Jasmine Crowl of Orange. "He liked to protect the ground troops."

Chao was born in Los Angeles and lived in Spain and Georgia while his father worked as a civil engineer for Bechtel Corp.

When the family moved to Fullerton, Chao took up golf, eventually playing on the Sunny Hills High School team.

From an early age, Chao set his own path. "He didn't follow, and he didn't expect to be followed," said Shane Ahn, who met Chao in fifth grade and was close to him through high school. "In many respects, he knew his path well before anyone else [in our class] did."

Chao joined the Army right after graduation. He started at the bottom -- an enlisted man serving in the infantry in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. After a brief stint at Long Beach City College, he made the military his career.

Nicknamed "Corn" by his buddies, Chao made friends for keeps, staying in touch with his best friend from elementary school and his roommate from Army flight school.

"I could go on for days about the great times we had," Duane Childers, who attended flight school with Chao and shared an apartment with him, wrote in a letter to Crowl. The two pals rescued their dogs from the same pound, Childers wrote, and would go hiking and fishing with the animals in tow.

Evan Battle, a pilot who knew Chao in Iraq, wrote a tribute to be distributed to fellow soldiers. "When he spoke, all of us listened," he wrote. "Though usually quiet, he could break up a moment of tension with a single short comment that would have us all cracking up with laughter."

Warrant Officer Ryan Bartholf, who knew him at Ft. Hood, said Chao joined his battalion as it was going through gunnery training, and he immediately won the "Top Gun" award for achieving the highest score. "I remember thinking, 'He just got here and won Top Gun,' " Bartholf wrote in an e-mail.

On the day that Chao died, Bartholf said, his actions "set a standard for all that we continue to do here in Iraq."

Back home, Chao made sure to visit the elderly residents of the assisted-living center where his mother worked. Drawn to the youthful veteran, seniors at the center treated him like a surrogate grandson, writing to him in Iraq and throwing him a party.

While serving at Ft. Hood, Chao became engaged to Hope Olivier. They had been close friends for 15 years, dating briefly when he was stationed at Ft. Polk, La., near her home in Lake Charles. They both married other people but remained good friends. Last fall, after both had divorced, Chao proposed.

"He would call me every morning and every night without fail," Olivier said. He was the one in danger, she said, and yet he worried about her, a single mother. "He was in Iraq, in the middle of a war, and he would say, 'How are you and the kids doing? I worry about you,' " she said.

The pair were to be married this month during a trip to Las Vegas that was also meant to mark Chao's 37th birthday March 13. They planned to go to China to adopt a baby.

Chao made Olivier promise to buy a home for herself and her three children if something happened to him, and he made her a partial beneficiary of his insurance and survivor benefits. Prodded by her friends, Olivier picked out a one-story, Tudor-style house in South Lake Charles that she is naming after Chao, and is pressing developers to name a new street after him.

The Army honored Chao with 23 medals, ribbons and badges, including a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

In addition to his mother, fiancee and her children, Chao is survived by a brother, Ray, 35, of Lake Forest.

On Feb. 20, Crowl buried her son next to his father at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier.

"Every day I look at his picture," she said. "I talk to him -- he's always in my heart."

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sharon.bernstein@latimes.com

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