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Uncle: Fallen Marine was 'one heck of a human being'

Then Sgt. Jonathan and Katarzyna Lewis at a Marine Corps Ball in 2012. The Marine Corps announced Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, that Staff Sgt. Jonathan Lewis was the Marine who died after a helicopter mishap on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. Eleven other Marines were injured in what was called a "hard landing."

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By DIANNA CAHN | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: September 5, 2015

NORFOLK (Tribune News Service) — The exercise was complex and dangerous, involving rappelling and fast-ropes techniques on a moving helicopter that can enable a Hampton Roads-based anti-terror unit to get into difficult terrain where aircraft might not be able to land.

But something went wrong Wednesday evening at Camp Lejeune, N.C., when the helicopter hit the ground hard -- too hard.

Eleven Marines were injured, and two remain hospitalized but stable. Staff Sgt. Jonathan Lewis, a 31-year-old Fauquier native based at Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, was killed.

About 20 Marines from Virginia and North Carolina were participating in training that requires them to exit the back of a helicopter using suspended ropes.

The training for the Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams requires "the highest-caliber Marine, with the dedication and courage to take on the challenge," Col. Jeffrey Kenney, officer in charge of Expeditionary Operations Training Group, said at a news conference at Lejeune on Friday.

Lewis was just such a Marine, he said.

He was just such a person, said his uncle, Keith Lewis.

"He was foremost a Marine and just one heck of a human being," said Lewis, reached by telephone at his parents' home in Warrenton -- a place where Jonathan spent time with his grandparents while growing up.

Even as a child, Jonathan loved to chat so much that he was always the last one at his grandmother's dinner table -- and then he'd be too busy talking to eat. Lewis said he'd arrive after dinner and find the boy sitting there, with a big smile, ready to talk some more.

"He was funny; he loved to do impersonations and made his fellow Marines laugh," said Sgt. Charles Brabec, a member of the same company, in an interview released by the Marines.

"He was really good at it. I would be dying of laughter on some of them."

Jonathan was intrepid from the time he was a little boy, his uncle said. He always wanted to know how things worked, loved to explore and was fearless.

At 7, Lewis gave Jonathan a nickname that would stick with him.

It came about after an incident at the house, when the mean boy next door shoved Jonathan, who told his grandfather.

The reply: "Push him back!"

"Jonathan hauled off and whacked him," recalled Lewis. "My dad told me what happened, and I looked at Jonathan, and he had a big grin on his face. He said, 'Uncle Keith, I gave Bobby a whacking. He shouldn't have messed with me 'cause I am dangerous.' "

From that day, Lewis called him "Danger Johnny" and was still starting texts to his nephew: "Hey Danger Johnny, what are you up to?"

When the boy was 8 or 9, Lewis, a heavy machinery operator, sat him on his lap and taught his adventurous nephew how to operate a bulldozer.

The relationship was strong -- as was Jonathan's relationship with other family members. He was the eldest of four siblings who shared a passion for the outdoors. He loved to organize camping and canoe trips for the siblings, even as they got older and moved away. And every year, he'd buy tickets to the Washington Redskins and take along as many family members as were available.

Jonathan came of age in the years after 9/11 and felt a nagging to join up. He was in college when he asked his uncle to go with him to the various branches of the military.

It made sense, Lewis said. Jonathan's grandfather served in World War II, his great-uncle was a Marine, and he had uncles in the Navy on both sides of his family.

The Marines were his last stop, and Jonathan saw a perfect fit. That commitment never waned, Lewis said.

"He just fell in love with the Marine Corps and everything it stood for," Lewis said.

Jonathan also was dedicated to his family, in particular his wife, Katie. They had just bought a house in Williamsburg, Lewis said, and were talking about starting a family.

"When he wasn't on duty, he was laid-back, so easygoing -- he had a heart of gold," Lewis said. "But when it was time to go to work, he was a Marine through and through. And he loved it."

In the Corps, Jonathan ultimately joined a highly trained infantry unit called the Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams. It's based in Hampton Roads but is positioned around the world "to quickly respond when needed," said 1st Sgt. Don Hernandez of the Bravo FAST Company in Yorktown.

There are three FAST companies -- two in Norfolk and one in Yorktown -- with approximately 300 men in each. They train hard, receiving countless hours in marksmanship, crew-served weapons, fire and movement and small-unit tactics -- giving them the ability to conduct a variety of missions, Hernandez said.

The teams can conduct anti-terrorism operations, convoy security operations and other, undisclosed actions. Recently, they conducted embassy reinforcement in Yemen, Haiti, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, among other missions, Hernandez said.

The work suited Jonathan, and his enthusiasm was infectious, Lewis said, adding that Jonathan's younger brother followed in his footsteps and is a Marine lieutenant.

Brabec said Jonathan was the best non-commissioned officer he has ever been around -- easy to get along with, taking the time to do the things that others forgot and fixing things that were broken.

"Everybody is obviously upset," he said. "You look at the situation, and it makes you mad because he's the guy you want to hang around. Everyone respected him and tried to replicate his cool demeanor.

"We all want him back."

Lewis said Jonathan's immediate family wasn't ready to talk. But he felt compelled.

"I just want people to know: He was more than a Marine. He was a damn good Marine. But he was also a great husband and a great nephew and just a great person.

"He was a genuinely happy human being. He always rooted for the underdog," Lewis said. "I honestly didn't know anyone else like him in my life."

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