By TATABOLINE BRANT and JULIA O'MALLEY, Anchorage Daily News,
January 10, 2006|
A pilot and aircraft mechanic with a family and deep roots in Anchorage was among four Alaska Army National Guardsmen killed in a helicopter crash Saturday in Iraq.
Family and friends confirmed Monday that Chester Troxel, 44, was on the Black Hawk that went down for unknown reasons in a remote location in northern Iraq, killing all 12 people on board.
Troxel's wife of 23 years, Sheree, and the couple's two children, Hollis, 17, and Summer, 14, were at their South Anchorage home Monday, surrounded by friends and family.
Tom Cobaugh, who has known the family for about 15 years, said in a telephone interview from the Troxels' home that the kids were having a sleepover and that many other people had called the family or dropped by with cards, flowers and food.
Sheree described the outpouring as "tremendous" and said she and the kids were doing OK given what they were going through. She was not up to speaking further.
Military officials had not released any of the names of the people who died in the crash, but news of Troxel's death traveled quickly as his family and church notified people who knew him.
"His whole world revolved around his wife and his kids," said longtime friend and neighbor Tom Blake, a retired Air National Guard pilot who met Troxel when they were flying Huey helicopters together in the late 1980s.
Blake said the last time he saw Troxel, he was jogging in their South Anchorage neighborhood.
"His wife is disabled, and when he ran, he would push her in a little sort of a bicycle with multiple wheels on it. They would just spend that time together," Blake said, his voice tight and trailing off.
The Troxels have lived in Anchorage for 22 years. Sheree and her daughter both suffer from Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia, which affects the lower extremities, making it difficult for them to walk. Friends describe the family members as devoted to one another. When Hollis, a junior at Anchorage Christian School, came from behind to win the small-schools state cross-country running championship in October, he fought back tears.
"I run for everyone in my family," he said then. "They are always in pain."
Chester Troxel missed that race. Fifty-six members of his unit -- Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment -- had shipped out for Iraq the month before. Troxel volunteered to go on the mission, working overtime to rehabilitate from knee surgery to make sure he qualified, said Cobaugh, who is also in the Guard.
Cobaugh said Troxel believed in the U.S. mission in Iraq and was incredibly proud of his service.
"He was very strong, a very moral man," Cobaugh said. "He loved his God, his country and his family. He was committed to all three of those."
Days before shipping out Sept. 5, "Chester said to me, 'If anything happens to me while I'm over there, I want you to take care of my family,' " Cobaugh said. "I'm not the only one he said that to, I'm sure."
Blake said it is hard to imagine that his friend is gone.
"I think the thing that makes you climb back in a helicopter is that all human beings are given the gift of feeling like it's not going to happen to them, that it's always going to happen to the other guys," he said. "You just didn't think it would happen to a guy like (Troxel). He had a large amount of faith. He had a wonderful attitude. He is just one of those sort of all-American guys."
The Anchorage Baptist Temple, where the Troxels have attended church for more than 15 years, notified its congregation of the death in an e-mail newsletter Monday.
"I want you to be praying for his wife Sheree and the children," the Rev. Jerry Prevo wrote. "Please, do all you can to comfort her."
Prevo said in an interview Monday that the church heard before the family had been notified that Troxel may have been on the downed chopper. He said the information came from other people serving in Iraq but that there was no way to immediately confirm it so no one shared it with the family.
"She came to church Sunday and knew absolutely nothing about it," Prevo said somberly. He said the church sent members to accompany the military for the official notification.
"She found out Sunday afternoon around three o'clock," he said. "She's taking it as well as can be expected."
Cobaugh said he was with the family when they were notified. He said Sheree and Summer were at home when Brig. Gen. Craig Christensen, commander of the Army Guard in Alaska, came to the house to break the news.
"It was a difficult thing to go through," Cobaugh said.
Troxel was a veteran pilot who'd also been trained as a mechanic, Blake said. "He knew his airplane better than most," he said. "We have no details (on the crash), but it sounds like it was a weather-related incident. Any one of 25 or 50 or just keep counting things could have brought that helicopter down."
Troxel worked for Era Aviation for many years, working up to becoming director of maintenance. He was laid off last year during a downsizing, said Terry Bennett, vice president of the company's Alaska operations.
"He was just an absolute solid man," said Bennett, who was hired around the same time as Troxel, in 1989, and knew his family.
"He's the guy who kept those aircraft flying day in and day out in all the conditions that we have in Alaska. He never let the operations needs of our company overrule the maintenance needs of the aircraft."
While the names of the three other Alaskans who died in the crash had not been released, the impact of their deaths was evident Monday in town. By noon, a sign outside the Jewel Lake Tastee-Freez on Raspberry Road read, "Please pray for our 4 Army National Guard members lost in Iraq."
The restaurant is popular with Guard members. In an interview Monday, owner Rich Owens said he heard late Sunday that Alaskans were among the casualties but didn't have names. He put up the sign after officials confirmed that news Monday.
"People were stopping when we were putting the sign up, asking if that was for sure," he said.
A few minutes later, Owens' cell phone rang. It was a friend, calling to say that Troxel was among the dead. Owens snapped his cell phone closed, swallowed and fought back tears.