Navy SEALs: The personal stories of fallen fighters
By DAVID CRARY AP National Writer
Just three months after the nation lauded the anonymous Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden, it is getting to know in poignant detail about their colleagues who died aboard a downed helicopter in Afghanistan.
They came to the special forces from far-flung corners of the country - some of them motivated by the 9/11 attacks that bin Laden masterminded.
They were intensely patriotic and talented young men with a love of physical challenges and a passion for the high-risk job they chose.
Brian Bill, for example, had seemingly boundless ambitions, according to those who knew him as a high school student-athlete in Stamford, Conn.
A skier, mountaineer, pilot and triathlete, he hoped to complete graduate school after his military service and then become an astronaut.
"He loved life; he loved a challenge; and he was passionate about being a SEAL," his family said in a statement Monday.
Aaron Vaughn, a 30-year-old father of two from Virginia Beach, Va., met his wife, Kimberly, when she was a Washington Redskins cheerleader on a USO tour in Guam. Vaughn had aspired to a military career since childhood and told his parents after 9/11 that he wanted to become a SEAL.
"He felt, and so did the other members of his team, that the very existence of our republic is at stake," his father, Billy Vaughn, told NBC's "Today."
"Because of that, Aaron was willing to give his life."
Jason Workman, 32, of Blanding, Utah, also cited 9/11 as his motive for aspiring to join the special forces, childhood friend Tate Bennett told The Deseret News. He completed his Mormon mission to Brazil and Philadelphia, attended college, then joined the Navy with the specific goal of becoming a SEAL.
"Not making it just wasn't an option," Bennett said of his friend, who leaves behind a wife and 21-month-old son.
Workman, Vaughn, Bill and 19 other SEALS were among 30 Americans and eight Afghans killed Saturday when a rocket-propelled grenade fired by a Taliban insurgent downed their Chinook helicopter en route to a combat mission. All but two of the SEALs were from SEAL Team 6, the unit that killed bin Laden, although military officials said none of the crash victims was on that mission in Pakistan against the al-Qaida leader.
The crash was a somber counterpoint to the national jubilation that greeted news of bin Laden's death. Yet families and friends of the SEALs killed aboard the Chinook spoke of the dedication and tight-knit camaraderie that tided them through all sorts of ups and downs.
Jon Tumilson, 35, of Rockford, Iowa, was remembered as a feisty high school wrestler who later competed in marathons and triathlons as part of his preparation for a special forces career.
"He was willing to do whatever it took. He wanted to be there," neighbor Mark Biggs told the Mason City Globe Gazette. "That was his second family."
Former SEAL Howard Wasdin, author of the book "SEAL Team 6," said on CBS's "The Early Show" that elected officials in Washington could take a lesson from the fallen SEALs.
"We got our politicians pointing the fingers about who's to blame for our credit rating, and in the meantime, you've got the best and the brightest out there giving their lives," he said. "Our leaders need to take a play from the playback of the Navy SEALS: Be a team and quit all the infighting."
Here are the stories of some of the fallen:
A severe arm injury during fighting in Fallujah in 2004 didn't keep Matthew Mason off the Iraq War battlefield. Nor did it dull the competitive fire of the avid runner and former high school athlete from outside Kansas City.
Within five months of losing part of his left arm, absorbing shrapnel and suffering a collapsed lung, Mason competed in a triathlon. He soon returned to his SEAL unit.
"He could have gotten out of combat," said family friend Elizabeth Frogge.
"He just insisted on going back."
Mason, the father of two toddler sons, grew up in Holt, Mo., and played football and baseball at Kearney High School. He graduated from Northwest Missouri State University in 1998. His wife, who is expecting their third child - another boy - also attended Northwest Missouri.
Mason returned to Missouri in May to compete in a Kansas City triathlon, and took his family to Walt Disney World for the first time this summer, Frogge said.
"He loved doing what he did," she said. "He was the type of guy who thought he was invincible."
Jason Workman had his sights set on becoming a SEAL as a young teenager. He was about 14 when his older brother graduated from West Point. That's when he knew he wanted to be an elite soldier, friend Tate Bennett told The Deseret News. Then came the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and Workman's calling grew even stronger.
"He didn't become a Navy SEAL by chance," Bennett said. "He knew that's what he wanted at a young age and made it happen."
After returning from his Mormon mission, Bennett said, Workman went to Southern Utah University and later joined the Navy.
Across his small hometown of Blanding in southern Utah, flags were flown at half-staff as residents mourned the loss of one of their own.
Even as a SEAL, Workman came home periodically. During his last trip, he led training sessions with local law enforcement, sharing his military skills, and planned to provide more training during a trip home this fall, Mayor Toni Turk told the Salt Lake City Tribune.
Jon Tumilson got an early start on his preparation to join the SEALS. He had been a wrestler in high school and competed in marathons and triathlons.
Neighbors remembered the Rockford, Iowa, man as a warrior committed to the SEALs, no matter the pain he endured in training or the risks he ran on each mission.
"When he did something, he put his all into it," Jan Stowe, a neighbor of the Tumilsons for more than 30 years, told the Des Moines Register.
Tumilson, who was 35 when he died, "was going to be a Navy SEAL since I can't remember when," Stowe said. "He's like a hero to everyone here."
Another neighbor, Mark Biggs, said people were shocked by his death.
"You just never thought it would happen to Jon," Biggs told the Mason City Globe Gazette. "He's done so many dangerous things."
Friend Justin Schriever remembered Tumilson as "a die-hard at everything. He'd always go the extra mile on everything. He wouldn't let anything stop him from accomplishing something."
Brian Bill had plans for when he finished his military service. He wanted to return to graduate school and hoped one day to become an astronaut.
For those who knew him, such lofty goals were not out of reach.
"He set his standards high. He was that kind of person," Kimberly Hess, a friend who graduated with him in 2001 from Vermont's Norwich University, told The Advocate newspaper. "He was remarkably gifted and very thoughtful. There wasn't anything he wouldn't do for you no matter the time or day."
Diane Warzoha, who had Bill as a student at Trinity Catholic High School in Stamford, said it was no surprise that he fulfilled his goal of joining the SEALs.
"Brian just wanted to do his best, to protect other people ... Challenge did not deter him, ever."
Three of the crew members aboard the downed Chinook were from the same Army reserve unit - Bravo Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment - based at New Century AirCenter in Gardner, Kan.
Spc. Spencer Duncan, 21, of Olathe, Kan., had written to friends about how much he loved working as a door gunner on a Chinook helicopter. But The Kansas City Star reported that he also told friends that he missed Kansas sunsets and lying in a truck bed listening to the radio and cuddling with his sweetie.
He joined the military in 2008 and had been in Afghanistan since late May.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bryan Nichols, 31, a pilot from Kansas City, Mo., was eager to get back to flying after a stint handling paperwork as a unit administrator. So when the word went out that people were needed to train for a mobilization, Nichols volunteered.
Lt. Col. Richard Sherman, former commander of Nichols' unit, said one of his favorite memories is flying a pace car with Nichols to the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.
"My happiest and saddest memories are now tied to him," said Sherman, who was in command and working as an instructional pilot when Nichols joined his unit.
"He had no enemies. He was one everyone wanted to be around. You just liked flying with him because you knew he was going to improve as a young pilot and get better every time you flew with him."
Specialist Alexander Bennett, 23, couldn't wait to deploy again after returning from spending a year in Iraq in 2009. So the reservist moved on his own from the Tacoma, Wash., area to Overland Park, Kan., to join Bravo Company.
"He wanted to be part of our unit when it deployed," said Sherman. "He was a typical young kid and liked to go out and have a good time with the guys."
Patrick Hamburger planned to propose to his girlfriend, but had a job to do first: a mission in Afghanistan.
The 30-year-old sergeant from Grand Island, Neb., joined the Nebraska National Guard when he was a senior at Lincoln Southeast High School, but this was his first deployment, his brother Chris Hamburger told The Associated Press.
"He didn't have to go, and he wanted to go because his group was getting deployed. He wanted to be there for them. That's him for you," Chris Hamburger said, adding that Patrick always looked out for his two younger brothers and friends.
He was also the kind of guy who helped his girlfriend raise her 13-year-old daughter from another relationship, as well as the couple's own 2-year-old daughter, and planned to propose marriage when he got home, Chris Hamburger said.
Patrick Hamburger had been in Afghanistan less than two weeks and had arrived at Forward Operating Base Shank a few days before climbing aboard the helicopter to rush to the aid of an Army Ranger unit under fire from insurgents.
"It doesn't come as a total surprise that he was trying to help people and that's how it all ended up happening," Chris Hamburger said.
If someone was sad, Michael Strange tried to make them smile. He loved snowboarding, surfing, scuba diving, running, and shooting guns on the range.
"He loved his friends, his family, his country; he loved making people laugh. He was one of a kind," Strange's brother, Charles Strange III, said outside the family's Philadelphia home, where American flags were planted throughout the neighborhood.
Strange, 25, decided to join the military when he was still in high school, and had been in the Navy for about six years, first stationed in Hawaii and for the last two in Virginia Beach, where he became a SEAL about two years ago, his mother, Elizabeth Strange, told The Associated Press.
But he always told his family not to worry.
"He wasn't supposed to die this young. He was supposed to be safe," Elizabeth Strange said. "And he told me that, and I believed him. I shouldn't have believed him because I know better. He would say, `Mom, don't be ridiculous and worry so much. I'm safe."'
Charles Strange said his brother loved the SEALS, especially "the competitiveness, getting in shape and running and swimming and all of that."
He also had two sisters and recently became an uncle. The family last saw him in June, when he came for a weeklong visit for his birthday, his mother said. He was supposed to be back for Thanksgiving.
"It was going to be such a good time," his mother said.
His grandmother Bernice Strange remembered him as a young man who loved cheesesteaks and the Philadelphia Eagles and always brought her flowers.
"He was a wonderful grandson to have," she said Monday night. "God truly blessed me with him."
If Elizabeth Newlun wanted to have a serious conversation with her son, John Brown, she had to shoot baskets with him.
"There's nothing athletic about me, but I realized that you have to get into other people's comfort zone to get information," said Newlun, of Rogers, Ark., explaining that her son, an Air Force technical sergeant, was a "gentle giant" who "just loved anything physical, anything athletic."
Newlun said her son played football and basketball in high school and went to John Brown University on a swimming scholarship. He had wanted to go into the medical field and become a nurse anesthetist, but decided to join the military after seeing a video of a special tactical unit, she said.
The airman was a paramedic and ready to attend to the medical needs of anyone who was rescued, his mother said.
Arkansas state Rep. Jon Woods went to high school with Brown in Siloam Springs and remembered playing basketball and watching "Saturday Night Live" on the weekends.
"When you think of what the ideal model of a soldier would be, he would be it," said Woods. "He could run all day."
Aaron Carson Vaughn was a man of deep faith, insisting to his family that he didn't fear his job as a Navy SEAL "because he knew where he was going" when he died.
"Aaron was a Christian and he's with Jesus today," Geneva Vaughn of Union City, Tenn., told The Associated Press on Saturday. "He told us when we saw him last November that he wasn't afraid ... he said, `Granny, don't worry about me."'
"He was a tough warrior, but he was a gentle man."
Geneva Vaughn said her grandson, 30, joined the SEALS straight out of boot camp and was already a decorated fighter when he was asked by the Navy to return stateside to become an instructor. But he applied to SEAL Team 6 after two years, earning his way onto the squad in 2010.
He asked the military to return him to combat and shipped out just six weeks before he was killed, Vaughn said.
"He was doing what he loved to do and he was a true warrior," Geneva Vaughn said.
Aaron Vaughn leaves behind his wife, Kimberly, and two children, 2-year-old son Reagan and 2-month-old daughter Chamberlyn.
"They will take away his love for Christ. They will take his dream and his love for the country, and they will know what an amazing man he is," Kimberly said about the children in an interview on NBC's "Today" show Monday.
Robert James Reeves and Jonas Kelsall had been childhood friends in Shreveport, La., where they played soccer together and graduated from Caddo Magnet High School, Kelsall's father, John, told The Times of Shreveport and KLSA-TV.
Both joined the military after graduation, though the 32-year-old Reeves spent a year at Louisiana State University first, his father, Jim Reeves, told the newspaper.
Reeves became a SEAL in 1999 and served on SEAL Team 6, his father said. During his many deployments, he earned four Bronze Stars and other honors.
Kelsall, 33, was one of the first members of SEAL Team 7, his father said.
He trained in San Diego and met his wife of three years, Victoria, when he was attending the University of Texas out of Basic Underwater Demolition training, his father said.
Reeves placed several American flags outside his home and his neighbors joined in, many decorating their homes in red, white and blue in support of the families.
When he was a Maui High School football player, no one could match Kraig Vickers' intensity on the field.
But off the field? "You couldn't find a nicer guy," his former coach remembers.
"He played middle linebacker, so he was really smart, the quarterback of the defense; and when he put on his helmet, no one could match his intensity and aggressiveness," coach Curtis Lee told the Maui News.
Vickers, who would have turned 37 on Thursday, graduated from high school in 1992 and attended Evangel College in Missouri on a football scholarship. "He decided college wasn't for him," and returned home, his father, Robert Vickers, said. After stints in tree trimming and working as a hotel security guard, he became a certified scuba diver and decided to join the Navy in 1996.
He lived in Virginia Beach, Va., with his wife Nani, who is seven months' pregnant with their third child. Robert Vickers said she is making plans to return to Hawaii because she only has a small window of time before doctors won't allow her to fly.
"He wanted to be buried near the ocean," his father said, adding that the family is awaiting details on when the body will arrive on Maui.