- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 9, 2011

They came to the special operations forces from far-flung corners of the country — some of them motivated by the 9/11 attacks that Osama 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.

Chief Petty Officer 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.

Petty Officer Bill and 21 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 had been on that mission in Pakistan against the al Qaeda 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.

Here are the stories of some of the fallen:

Matthew Mason

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, he competed in a triathlon. He soon returned to his SEAL unit. Associated Press did not have his Navy rank.

“He could have gotten out of combat,” said family friend Elizabeth Frogge. “He just insisted on going back.”

The father of two toddler sons, Matthew Mason 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.

The SEAL 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, Miss Frogge said.

“He loved doing what he did,” she said. “He was the type of guy who thought he was invincible.

Jon Tumilson

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 career as a Navy SEAL. Associated Press did not have his rank.

“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.”

Bravo Company

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 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, he volunteered.

Lt. Col. Richard Sherman, former commander of Warrant Officer Nichols’ unit, said one of his favorite memories is flying a pace car with Warrant Officer Nichols to the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

“My happiest and saddest memories are now tied to him,” said Col. Mr. Sherman, who was in command and working as an instructional pilot when Warrant Officer 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.”

Spc. 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,” Col. Sherman said. “He was a typical young kid and liked to go out and have a good time with the guys.”

Patrick Hamburger

Sgt. Patrick Hamburger planned to propose to his girlfriend but had a job to do first: a mission in Afghanistan.

The 30-year-old 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 Sgt. Hamburger always looked out for his two younger brothers and friends.

He also was 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.

Sgt. 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.

Michael Strange

If someone was sad, Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Strange tried to make him 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,” Petty Officer Strange’s brother, Charles Strange III, said outside the family’s Philadelphia home, where American flags were planted throughout the neighborhood.

Petty Officer 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 past two years 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.’ “

Robert James Reeves, Jonas Kelsall

Chief Petty Officer Robert James Reeves and Lt. Cmdr. 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 Chief Petty Officer Reeves spent a year at Louisiana State University first, his father, Jim Reeves, told the newspaper.

He 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.

Cmdr. 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.

Jim 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.

Kraig Vickers

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.

The Navy bomb disposal specialist, 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. Associated Press did not have his rank.

He lived in Virginia Beach 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.

Associated Press writers Timberly Ross in Omaha, Neb., Chris Talbott in Nashville, Tenn., Rochelle Hines in Oklahoma City, Ron Todt in Philadelphia, Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City. Mo., Michael Melia in Hartford, Conn., and Alan Scher Zagier in Columbia, Mo., contributed to this report.

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