KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — The mission goes on. Outside a hangar full of mourners here Monday, the buzz of choppers continued unabated. There’s little time to pause during a war.
For two hours, though, hundreds of soldiers got a chance to say goodbye.
They filled the seats inside and spilled out of the fabric clamshell structure in a crowd stretching close to the flight line, bowing their heads in prayer and tears to remember four soldiers killed Thursday in a helicopter crash in Helmand province.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Nicholas Johnson, 27, San Diego; Spc. Dean Shaffer, 23, Pekin, Ill.; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Don Viray, 25, Waipahu, Hawaii; and Spc. Chris Workman, 33, Boise, Idaho.
All were flying in a Black Hawk along with a medevac chopper on a mission to pick up Afghan policemen wounded in a bombing. Thunderstorms and poor visibility forced the team back, but one chopper crashed, killing all four on board — a “fallen angel” in aviation parlance. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.
The soldiers were with 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, Task Force Hammerhead out of Hawaii, flying for the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade in Afghanistan.
Amid laughter and sobbing, the mourners shared stories of the fallen, of pranks and leadership, revelry and bravery.
There was the push-up king, Viray, a native Hawaiian who entered into a fierce competition with another soldier to do 1,000 push-ups in the shortest amount of time. He won, clocking in at 27 minutes.
“Funny enough, he didn’t like the ocean,” friend and fellow chopper pilot Chief Warrant Officer 2 Justin Neal said.
“Flying with him was a joy,” Neal said. “He loved it.”
Shaffer did like the ocean, hitting the beach regularly in between paintball battles with his friends. He was also known as fearless, wanting to complete the mission no matter what the danger.
“His mentality was, it don’t matter what’s going on, he’s coming to get you,” his friend, Spc. Eric Polaski said.
Johnson was a prankster and a story-teller, a devoted husband and father, who would draw funny pictures in other soldiers’ notebooks, unbeknownst to them, to make them burst out laughing in serious meetings.
“He had a joke or a one-liner for each and every situation,” said Capt. Macky Price, commander of Alpha Company 225.
And Workman was the former auto glass technician who joined the Army late in life, the specialist performing high above his rank, a natural leader who planned to become an officer. Married with a son, Workman was trained to respond to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear emergencies, but retrained to be a door gunner in order to come to Afghanistan. Younger soldiers and even officers would go to him for advice.
“A lot of people put a lot of responsibility on him,” his friend, 1st Lt. Cody Greene said. “(One officer said,) ‘As a specialist, he’s one of the best platoon sergeants I’ve ever had.’ ”
The mission goes on but you can’t ignore a tragedy like this when you’re so close and some in the regiment admit to being rattled.
“I flew yesterday and I was scared,” Spc. Jose Molina said. “Shaffer was one of my mentors. When you see someone like him have an accident like that, it makes you second-guess your abilities.”
But the birds must fly, the wounded must be picked up, and Lt. Col. Lori L. Robinson, commander of Task Force Hammerhead, said there’s no better tribute to the fallen.
“They were just an extremely brave crew — they were on a mission to save another’s life when they gave their own,” she said. “In their honor we fly…we continue to complete the mission.”