KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Three Army reservists based in northeast Kansas are among the victims of a helicopter crash in Afghanistan that killed 30 American troops, seven Afghan soldiers and an Afghan interpreter.
Lt. Col. Richard Sherman, the former commander of Bravo Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment based at the New Century AirCenter in Gardner, Kan., said he received confirmation of the deaths late Saturday of 23-year-old Spc. Alexander Bennett, a flight engineer/ door gunner from Overland Park, Kan., and 31-year-old Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bryan Nichols, a pilot from Kansas City, Mo.
Nichols has connections to the area. His aunt and uncle Lenora and Carl Olsen are from Columbus, and his wife Mary Nichols is originally from Girard. Lenora Olsen said Nichols was the pilot of the helicopter which went in to rescue the Navy SEALs.
Olsen said Nichols’ also leaves behind a 10-year-old son, Brayden. Bryaden had apparently contacted news network CNN to because his father’s name was not being mentioned on the air along with the SEALs who died.
“He died a hero,” Olsen said.
A third soldier from the unit, 21-year-old Spc. Spencer Duncan of Olathe, Kan., also died in the crash. Chief Warrant Officer Michael Walsh said Sunday that Duncan, who graduated from Olathe South High School, was serving as a door gunner on the CH-47 helicopter that was hit by rocket fire Saturday.
Sherman said he had a bad feeling when he heard about the crash because of the number of the victims and the area where it happened. He said Nichols was a close friend who was eager to get back to flying after a stint handling paperwork as the unit administrator. Nichols volunteered when word went out that people were needed to train for a mobilization.
“They were great people who wanted to serve their country and did what they were called upon to do,” Sherman said. “It was quite a loss to us.”
Sherman, currently a civilian test and instructional pilot for the unit’s support facility, said one of his best memories is flying a pace car with Nichols to the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
“It was the coolest thing I’ve done in the Army in my 18-year career, and he did it with me,” Sherman said. “My happiest and saddest memories are now tied to him.”
Sherman was commanding the unit when Nichols joined it as a brand new pilot. Nichols had previously served with a medical unit.
“He had no enemies,” Sherman said. “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.”
Sherman said Nichols had been involved in an earlier crash while setting an aircraft down in a tight landing zone. But Sherman said Nichols remained well respected and recently had earned certification to become the pilot in command night vision goggle flights.
Nichols left behind a wife and a son from a previous marriage. Sherman said Nichols’ wife isn’t ready to talk to the media.
Sherman said Bennett 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 the unit based at New Century AirCenter.
“He wanted to be part of our unit when it deployed,” Sherman said.
Before departing for Afghanistan this spring, Bennett gained a reputation as a prankster.
“He was a typical young kid and liked to go out and have a good time with the guys,” Sherman said. “He never pranked me but then again at the time I was a major so specialists tend to not make majors their targets for pranks.”
Sherman said several people told him that Bennett wanted to stay for another tour and join the unit that would replace the one from Kansas.
“For single people, some of them, they are doing what they love over there,” Sherman said. “They like the job; they like the mission. It takes a special person to be that committed to it.”
Walsh said Duncan joined the military in 2008 and had been in Afghanistan since late May.
Duncan wrote to his friends about how much he loved working as a door gunner on a Chinook helicopter. But The Kansas City Star reported that he also wrote that the war was becoming worse.
“We’re so proud of Spencer and all of them over there,” Mikayla Dreyer, 20, told The Star. “When Spencer gets to heaven, he’ll say: ‘Let me in. I’ve been to hell already.’”
Duncan has two younger brothers, including 18-year-old Tanner who is in Marine boot camp.
“Spencer was going to surprise Tanner by showing up at his graduation,” Brian Bartels, 21, told The Star.
Walsh said Sunday that Duncan’s family would not be commenting until Monday at the earliest. A message that The Associated Press left Monday with Walsh was not immediately returned.