Three of the men were Army reservists based near Gardner, Kan., where dozens gathered for a vigil last weekend. They had been working in a dangerous, high-octane environment, said a fellow soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Kirk Kuykendall.
He had served in Afghanistan with Chief Warrant Officer Bryan Nichols, who was piloting the Chinook helicopter when it was shot down. Kuykendall said Nichols had been involved in an earlier incident in June.
“We were attempting to land 28 infantry soldiers in the middle of the night on a mountain,” said Kuykendall, when a problem brought the helicopter down and Nichols had to steer it to a safe landing. Kuykendall broke his ankle in that crash and returned home.
“I know that it’s because of Bryan Nichols that the rest of us who were on that helicopter were alive today,” he said. “He was an up-and-coming superstar.”
Kuykendall also knew Spec. Alexander Bennett, a flight mechanic who died in Saturday’s crash. Kuykendall trained Bennett in 2009, and they deployed together to Iraq before later going to Afghanistan.
“We arrived in the first week of May, and the mission tempo was high, very high-stress,” Kuykendall said. “[Bennett] loved it, he wanted to stay another year. . . . The more dangerous the mission, the more he loved it.”
Spec. Spencer Duncan, from the same aviation regiment, was the door gunner on the helicopter that crashed. His death provoked intense grief in his home town, said family friend David Delgado, whose children used to play with the “outgoing, polite” Duncan at Indian Creek Church in Olathe, Kan.
“I know a lot of people are upset that we are having to lose our babies, or lose anybody, for this war,” said Delgado, whose son serves in the Marine Corps. “We support our president, and we have to to remain a strong nation . . . but it’s hurt the community. There are mixed emotions. There are some who say they shouldn’t be out there at all.”
Kevin Houston, one of the Navy SEALs who died in the crash, was described by former aircraft carrier shipmate Nelson Velasquez as a tough man, who could also be funny and competitive. After a challenge made in a bar, Houston once tried to outswim a fellow SEAL across an inlet.
“When I was in the military, I realized that even if you are not in agreement with the political reasons of going to war, you realize a lot of people have poured out a lot of blood and sweat to give us the freedoms that we have, and that’s who I honor,” said Velasquez, who is now a civilian air-traffic controller. “I don’t particularly believe in the reasons for the war, but I honor the fallen, and I honor Kevin.”
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.