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Friday, November 21, 2003

PittsburghLIVE.com - Seward Family Mourns Its 'Gentle Giant'

Seward Family Mourns Its 'Gentle Giant'

By Jeff Himler
Staff writer
Friday, November 21, 2003

SEWARD--Rick Hafer Jr. had planned to surprise his father for Thanksgiving, showing up on the doorstep of his home here unannounced. The reunion would have ended more than 10 months the 2001 Laurel Valley High School graduate spent overseas, serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq.
Instead, on Saturday night, it was three Army officials who knocked at the door of Rick Hafer Sr. They delivered the heart-shattering news that his son was among 17 soldiers killed that same day, when two Black Hawk helicopters crashed in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

"I was in shock, I couldn't say anything for five minutes," the elder Hafer said Monday, recalling his reaction when the Army contingent arrived at about 10 p.m., escorted by a local police officer. "It's something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy."

The incident in Mosul marked the greatest one-day loss of U.S. troops since the war in Iraq began on March 20.

Sixteen of the soldiers belonged to the 101st Airborne Division based at Fort Campbell, Ky. That includes Hafer, 21, who handled field artillery for his unit.

Early this week, conflicting reports about the deadly episode over Mosul had yet to be resolved.

Hafer said Army representatives told him his son's death resulted from an accident: the helicopters collided while flying on a night maneuver over Iraq's third largest city. "One went the wrong way when they turned" and "flew into the other," according to the account he received.

Military officials said one of the helicopters carried a quick reaction force and the other was ferrying soldiers on a transport mission in northern Iraq. But there was no official word Monday on the cause of the 6:30 p.m. collision of the aircraft.

Some witnesses reported hostile fire from the ground, and an Iraqi group claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter. The two choppers reportedly crashed onto two rooftops about 250 yards apart.

Hafer took one consolation in his son's death: "He died a hero," continuing a family tradition of service in the armed forces. But "I'd rather have him alive."

Hafer said "There are more casualties now than during the war; that's not right," indicating American troops should be brought home. "With the war over, none of this should have happened. Other families are going through the same thing I am."

An all-star defensive end with the Laurel Valley football team, the younger Hafer also took part in the school's Junior ROTC program, making staff sergeant. He competed in junior wrestling in his native Blairsville and jv wrestling in Ligonier after his family moved to the Laurel Valley area.

He also studied welding at the Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center near Latrobe.

Jerry Page, longtime coach of the Ram football team and a neighbor of the Hafers when they resided in New Florence, remembered Rick Jr. as a "gentle giant."

At 6-5, 265, Page said, "He was an imposing figure" who played havoc with opposing offenses. But, "He never threw his weight around other than on the football field."

When stopping an opponent with a tackle, "He'd hit them and then pick them up," Page said. "He had such a pleasant outlook on life. He always seemed to have a smile on his face."

Page also recalled that Hafer Jr. was "respectful" and a hard worker, helping his father maintain the family vehicles and offering to assist neighbors with chores. "He was just an outstanding personality," Page said.

"He would help you faster than anybody I know," his father agreed. "He'd give you the shirt off his back."

"It certainly is a sad day for this community," the coach said of the younger Hafer's demise.

Page, who has seen hundreds of his players enter the military, added, "I really appreciate what these young people are doing for their country. You have to feel proud."

Sgt. Rick Lambing, one of Hafer's ROTC instructors at Laurel Valley, said the former cadet "was the nicest kid you'd ever want to talk to. Society lost his contribution."

In memory of Hafer, Lambing said, the school's flag was flown at half mast and students met to share their memories of the recent graduate.

One student saud Hafer used his strength to help free a fire truck stuck in some mud. "He was strong as an ox," Lambing said; he is planning to install a remembrance of Hafer in the ROTC classroom.

Though the younger Hafer's first love was football, he was planning to study business at Marshall University. After graduating from high school, he went to the neighboring state, where he got a job painting houses and stayed with his former step-mother, Sherry Barclay, and younger half-sisters, Holly, now 17, and Heather, 16.

"He was very protective of his sisters," Rick Sr. said.

According to his father, Rick Jr. eventually decided to delay his college plans, opting to enlist in the Army so he could later take advantage of the educational benefits.

Said Hafer, "I tried to talk him out of it." But, "He made his own decision. He was going to join the Army like I did and his grandfather did."

William R. Hafer served three years in the Marine Corps and four years in the Air Force before being killed in an automobile accident when his son, Rick Sr., was 18.

In response to the loss of his own father, Hafer senior formed an especially close bond with his own son: "He was my best friend, too. We did a lot of hunting and fishing together. We had a camp in Bedford where we'd go on weekends."

From shooting at wild game, the younger Hafer would take aim at different targets when he trained for a field artillery position. "He would ride around on trucks with big guns mounted on them," said his father, who received weekly calls from his son once his unit had settled into Iraq.

Father and son also regularly exchanged letters, and he sent care packages of his son's favorite snacks: cashews, peanuts and powdered grape Gatorade.

Also, to keep track of news from Iraq, Hafer watched CNN every morning before work. He bought a t-shirt with a map showing Iraq and the names of its major cities.

Hafer tried to dissuade his son from his choice of specialty. While field artillery positions are among the best paid in the Army, his father noted the danger also is high.

"The most dangerous places to be are with the field artillery or infantry," he said. "I knew it would be on the front line."

His unit shipped out of Kentucky in late December of last year, spending a period in Afghanistan before joining the conflict in Iraq. He had been stationed at Mosul, near the Turkish border, for at least four months.

According to his letters, Hafer was assigned to reconnaissance missions, to search and seize weapons which might be used against Americans.

During one such mission, "He got caught in a sandstorm. He said it felt like thousands of little bees stinging you in the face."

The younger Hafer also saw inside some of Hussein's palaces. He told his father, "Everything was made of gold. Then, when he stepped outside, he would see that the people in the street were all poor."

Iraqis' reactions to the American soldiers were mixed: "Some people viewed them as saviors and others would throw apples and tomatoes at them."

One young Iraqi girl was particularly grateful to Rick Jr., his father related. He said his son rescued the girl from an Iraqi man who was trying to rape her in a back street.

To thank her defender, "Two days later she came back and gave him a string of beads she had made."

Overall, his son "liked doing his job" in Iraq. "When he accomplished a goal they set for him, he was excited."

At the same time, noted his grandmother, Ellen Cameron of Derry Township, "He was so looking forward to coming home" for a two-week leave this Thanksgiving, after two previous stateside visits had been cancelled.

Hafer learned from a friend in the younger Hafer's unit that his son had planned to surprise his family with a reunion this month.

But in his last phone conversation with his son, on Nov. 7, he kept his plan under wraps. "He said, 'I'll see you when I get home in March,' " adding that "he had a surprise for me. I told him seeing him was the only thing I wanted."

In August, the family received a final photo e-mailed from Iraq. Though sunburned, "He looked good," his father said.

The elder Hafer noted his son was "into extreme things," enjoying training which involved rappelling.

Due to his strength, he was nicknamed "Superman" by his fellow trainees.

In an example of the affectionate humor father and son shared, Hafer sent his son some briefs bearing the "S" logo of the famous superhero: "He had to do some push-ups for that, but he thought it was funny."

The last time his father and grandmother saw Rick Jr. in person was when he graduated from basic and advanced individual training at Ft. Sill, Okla., shortly after Thanksgiving last fall. "He grinned all over, he was so happy to see us," his grandmother recalled.

Shortly after Christmas, his unit was activated for duty in the Middle East. He never had the chance to meet the newest Hafer, a two-month-old half-brother, Nicholas.

Now the family is waiting to reclaim the remains of the newest member to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Herbert Goff, a great-great-uncle of Rick Jr., was shot down and killed while serving with the Air Force in World War II.

Four other great-uncles also served: Reid Goff of Morgantown, W. Va., and Russ Hafer of Blairsville, both served with the Army in Vietnam; Ronald Hafer of Hampton, Va., a retired sergeant major with 30 years of service in the Army.

On Tuesday, Hafer learned his son's body had been returned to the states, taken to the Air Force base in Dover, Del. He wasn't sure how long it would be before the family could claim their loved one.

Funeral arrangements were indefinite but were expected to be under the supervision of Ferguson Funeral Home, with interment in Blairsville Cemetery.
PittsburghLIVE.com - Seward Family Mourns Its 'Gentle Giant'

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