Airfield at Fort Cavazos renamed to honor 2 Army pilots killed in Iraq
Stars and Stripes June 7, 2023
AUSTIN, Texas — Chief Warrant Officer 4 Keith Yoakum and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jason DeFrenn were not the type of men who sought attention for themselves, their siblings said. They were both dedicated pilots who loved that their job was to fly Apache helicopters for the Army.
“He was quite happy being a workhorse,” said Aleta Woods, DeFrenn’s sister. “That he ended up in a helicopter doing what he did, was honestly no surprise to me, whatsoever.”
On Feb. 2, 2007, Yoakum, 41, and DeFrenn, 34, were flying on patrol near Taji, Iraq, with 1st Air Cavalry Brigade when they began taking fire from an enemy on the ground. Another aircraft took hits as well, and the two men chose to stay in the fight to protect the other aircraft instead of heading for safety, according to the brigade.
Yoakum and DeFrenn’s helicopter crashed in a hail of gunfire.
To honor their sacrifice, the aviation brigade, which is part of the 1st Cavalry Division, renamed its airfield last month to honor the pilots. The opportunity arose when the brigade’s home station, Fort Hood, Texas, dropped its homage to a Confederate general and became Fort Cavazos.
Congress outlined a process in 2020 for the Army to begin renaming nine southern posts named to honor Confederate generals. By the end of this year, all will bear new names.
The air cavalry brigade was left to decide how to handle renaming Hood Army Airfield, which supports flight operations for Chinook, Black Hawk and Apache helicopters.
Last month, the brigade unveiled the Yoakum-DeFrenn Army Heliport.
“In the 1st Cavalry Division our motto is ‘Live the Legend,’ and it is a distinct honor and privilege to live the legend of those who came before us and pay tribute to these two 1st Cavalry troopers and Army aviation heroes,” Col. Timothy Jaeger, brigade commander, said May 4 during remarks at a ceremony to rename the airfield. “Every day when Air Cav troopers enter through the gates of the Yoakum-DeFrenn Army Heliport, they will be reminded that we owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before us and gave their lives so others could return home to their loved ones.”
The family of Yoakum said he would have shied away from that kind of attention. Kevin Yoakum, Keith Yoakum’s twin, said he once earned accolades as the best officer in his brigade, and turned bright red as he received an officer’s saber.
“I think he would probably think it was cool,” Kevin Yoakum said. “But he also knows usually [places are] named after dead people. So he probably wouldn’t have been too cool about it.”
The Fort Cavazos airfield holds a special place in Kevin Yoakum’s heart, he said during his remarks at the renaming ceremony. It’s the first place that he was on flight status as a Black Hawk crew chief. It’s also the last place that he saw his brother spend time with his family. He recalled Keith Yoakum showing off an Apache helicopter to his then 5-year-old daughter.
For Woods, who also attended the ceremony, it was important to make the trip from South Carolina because it was the first ceremony since his death that she’d been invited to attend. The news of DeFrenn’s death upended their family and sent DeFrenn’s wife into labor early with the couple’s son. It was an extremely difficult time, Woods said.
“It was like he was there one day, and then he was gone. Then that was it. From my perspective, [attending] was a way that I could honor him,” said Woods, who was joined by her son, her two nephews and their mother.
“Honestly, my brother thought he was going to live forever,” she said. “He never once considered that of all the crazy shenanigans he survived that he would actually die. We didn't either because we were just so used to him being like a cat landing on his feet.”
DeFrenn had always been a thrill seeker. He loved taking risks and heavy metal music, Woods said. He was managing a Pizza Hut in South Carolina at 25 years old when he decided to enlist in the Army. Along the way, he decided he’d try to get into flight school.
Growing up across the country, Keith Yoakum always knew he wanted to be a pilot, his brother said. The twins were raised in Hemet, Calif., where they would ride their bikes out to an old military airfield to watch firefighting aircraft take off to drop flame retardant onto wildfires.
“It started really young,” said Kevin Yoakum, a retired Army aircraft mechanic.
Keith first enlisted in the Army as a vehicle mechanic, then switched to the Army Reserve as an aircraft mechanic while he began college. After two years, he applied and was accepted to flight school.
Approaching retirement, Keith Yoakum suggested his brother move his family out near Fort Novosel, Ala., and they’d go into some form of an aviation business. Fort Cavazos and a deployment to Iraq were all that stood between Keith Yoakum and his newly purchased 51 acres in Alabama, where his wife and children were waiting for him.
Kevin Yoakum still lives in Alabama and works as a civilian at Fort Novosel on flight training systems. Occasionally people who knew his brother will stop in his office, where he keeps his brother’s logbook. It’s filled with Keith’s notes on his flights and what he was doing on different dates and times.
“If they flew together, we’ll look in the logbook and see what he had to say,” he said. “It’s probably my most treasured item.”
Every Feb. 2, Kevin Yoakum and his sons honor Keith by doing something that he would have enjoyed – they visit a museum or go to airports and look at airplanes. This year they visited the Barber Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Ala.
At Woods’ home, her children set up a fallen soldier table in the dining room to honor their uncle on holidays. She decorates her home with Fourth of July decorations from Memorial Day to Labor Day, she said.
“I wear a little bracelet that people ask me about all the time. It brings it up as a conversation point,” Woods said.
She would like to see the new name become a similar launch point for new soldiers to learn about her brother, she said.
Setting aside the heroic actions of DeFrenn’s last moments alive, his ability to reinvent himself and excel in the military is an inspiration, Woods said.
“The military gave him structure and gave him a vehicle to think big and to just follow his dreams,” she said. “If you really want it for yourself, you can be someone and make something of yourself.”