Family, friends remember fallen fighters as heroes
One relied on his deep faith. Another was planning a marriage proposal. And yet another would shoot baskets with his mom when they had something serious to discuss.
But the brothers, fathers, sons and uncles who died when a U.S. military helicopter was shot down in eastern Afghanistan all had something in common: a love of family and country, according to friends and family members. Those who knew them said the soldiers were aware of the dangers they faced but were dedicated to their mission — even if it meant giving their lives.
Here are the stories of some of the fallen:
Patrick Hamburger planned to propose to his girlfriend, but had a job to do first: a mission in Afghanistan.
The 30-year-old sergeant 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 on Sunday.
"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 Patrick always looked out for his two younger brothers and friends.
He was also 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.
Patrick 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 with U.S. Navy SEALs and other troops to rush to the aid of a U.S. 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.
If someone was sad, Michael Strange tried to make them 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," Strange's brother, Charles Strange III, 22, said Sunday outside the family's Philadelphia home, where American flags were planted throughout the neighborhood.
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 last two 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.'"
Charles Strange said his brother loved the SEALS, especially "the competitiveness, getting in shape and running and swimming and all of that."
He also had two sisters, 21-year-old Katelyn and 7-year-old Carly, and recently became an uncle. The family last saw him in June, when he came for a weeklong visit for his birthday, his mother said. He was supposed to be back for Thanksgiving.
"It was going to be such a good time," his mother said.
If Elizabeth Newlun wanted to have a serious conversation with her son, John Brown, she had to shoot baskets with him.
"There's nothing athletic about me, but I realized that you have to get into other people's comfort zone to get information," said Newlun, of Rogers, Ark., explaining that her son, an Air Force technical sergeant, was a "gentle giant" who "just loved anything physical, anything athletic."
Newlun said her son played football and basketball in high school and went to John Brown University on a swimming scholarship. He had wanted to go into the medical field and become a nurse anesthetist, but decided to join the military after seeing a video of a special tactical unit, she said.
The airman was a paramedic and ready to attend to the medical needs of anyone who was rescued, his mother said.
Arkansas state Rep. Jon Woods went to high school with Brown in Siloam Springs and remembered playing basketball and watching "Saturday Night Live" on the weekends.
"When you think of what the ideal model of a soldier would be, he would be it," said Woods. "He could run all day."
Aaron Carson Vaughn was a man of deep faith, insisting to his family that he didn't fear his job as a Navy SEAL "because he knew where he was going" when he died.
"Aaron was a Christian and he's with Jesus today," Geneva Vaughn of Union City, Tenn., told The Associated Press on Saturday. "He told us when we saw him last November that he wasn't afraid ... he said, 'Granny, don't worry about me.'"
"He was a tough warrior, but he was a gentle man."
Geneva Vaughn said her grandson, 30, joined the SEALS straight out of boot camp and was already a decorated fighter when he was asked by the Navy to return stateside to become an instructor. But he applied to SEAL Team 6 after two years, earning his way onto the squad in 2010.
He asked the military to return him to combat and shipped out just six weeks before he was killed, Vaughn said.
"He was doing what he loved to do and he was a true warrior," Geneva Vaughn said.
Aaron Vaughn leaves behind his wife, Kimberly, and two children, 2-year-old son Reagan and 2-month-old daughter Chamberlyn.
"They will take away his love for Christ. They will take his dream and his love for the country and they will know what an amazing man he is," Kimberly said about the children in an interview on NBC's "Today" show Monday.
Robert James Reeves and 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 Reeves spent a year at Louisiana State University first, his father, Jim Reeves, told the newspaper.
Reeves 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.
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.
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.
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.
Kraig Vickers had been a Navy Bomb Disposal Team member, his father, Robert Vickers, told the newspaper. He said his son would have turned 37 on Thursday before declining further comment on his death.
Kraig Vickers graduated high school in 1992.
He lived in Virginia Beach, Va., with his wife, Nani, who was pregnant, and their three children, his friend from childhood, Michael Labuanan, told the newspaper.
"I gravitated towards Kraig because of his easygoing personality and the drive to become the best person that he could be," said Labuanan in an email.
U.S. Rep Mazie Hirono released a statement Sunday, extending her "gratitude to Kraig Vickers for his loyal service to our country."
Jon Tumilson got an early start on his preparation to join the SEALS. He had been a wrestler in high school and competed in marathons and triathlons.
Neighbors remembered the Rockford, Iowa, man as a warrior committed to the SEALs, no matter the pain he endured in training or the risks he ran on each mission.
"When he did something, he put his all into it," Jan Stowe, a neighbor of the Tumilsons for more than 30 years, told the Des Moines Register.
Tumilson, who was 35 when he died, "was going to be a Navy SEAL since I can't remember when," Stowe said. "He's like a hero to everyone here."
Another neighbor, Mark Biggs, said people were shocked by his death.
"You just never thought it would happen to Jon," Biggs told the Mason City Globe Gazette. "He's done so many dangerous things."
Friend Justin Schriever remembered Tumilson as "a die-hard at everything. He'd always go the extra mile on everything. He wouldn't let anything stop him from accomplishing something."
Brian Bill had plans for when he finished his military service. He wanted to return to graduate school and hoped one day to become an astronaut.
And for those who knew him, such lofty goals were not out of reach for the young man who wanted to be the best at anything he pursued.
"He set his standards high. He was that kind of person," Kimberly Hess, a friend who graduated with him in 2001 from Vermont's Norwich University, told The Advocate newspaper. "He was remarkably gifted and very thoughtful. There wasn't anything he wouldn't do for you no matter the time or day."
Bill was also a mountaineer, a skier, a pilot and triathlete.
Diane Warzoha, who had Bill as a student at Trinity Catholic High School in Stamford, said it was no surprise that he fulfilled his goal of joining the SEALs.
"Brian just wanted to do his best, to protect other people ... Challenge did not deter him, ever."
Associated Press writers Timberly Ross in Omaha, Neb., Chris Talbott in Nashville, Rochelle Hines in Oklahoma City and Ron Todt in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
Last updated: 6:11 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012