DN couple'sson killed inAfghanistan

A soldier who lived in Del Norte County as a baby was among 11 people killed Thursday when a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in southern Afghanistan.

Richard Essex, 23, whose father Charles Essex is a correctional officer at Pelican Bay State Prison and a Smith River resident, was among those who died in the crash. He was one of seven Americans and four Afghans killed.

Richard Essex lived in Del Norte County when he was a baby, but grew up in Kelseyville, southeast of Ukiah, graduating from Kelseyville High School in 2008, according to his aunt, Mayme Dyslin.

Essex joined the military the Monday after he graduated, Dyslin said, starting out as a mechanic. He was transferred to Hawaii with the goal of becoming a helicopter gunner.

Essex left for Afghanistan last September and was due to come home in November.

"I know when he found out he got the gunner's position, he was really happy," Dyslin said. "It's what he wanted to do."

Richard Essex's stepmother, Noella Essex, said Richard and his siblings would spend summers with their father in Del Norte. Richard Essex was following in the footsteps of his father when he joined the military, she said, adding that he worked in the special operations sector of the Army and this was his first tour.

His body is being flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Sunday morning, Noella Essex said, and family members will be on hand.

"People need to know that their freedom is because of men and women like Richard," she said. "He gave his life."

She also passed along this statement from Charles Essex, Richard's father:

"I am proud of my son because he had the tenacity to go out and do what he did every day knowing the consequences of his duty to his country. "That is what an Essex does."

Dyslin described her nephew as a free spirit who loved to skateboard, play the bass guitar and write poetry. He actually had a book of poems out, she said, and was on his way to publishing a second.

"He always wanted to be in the military," she said. "At least he died doing something he loved to do. He was very proud to be a soldier."

In addition to his father, stepmother and aunt, Essex is survived by his mother and stepfather, Marion and Brett Hopkins of Kelseyville; his older brother Michael Essex and his sister Jennifer Williamson.

NATO forces said they could not confirm what caused Thursday's crash and stressed that it was still being investigated. The Black Hawk was operating in support of an ongoing assault on the ground but initial indications were that it was not shot down, according to U.S. officials who spoke anonymously because the investigation was continuing.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said insurgent fighters struck the helicopter in Kandahar province on Thursday morning. He declined to give further details in a phone call with The Associated Press.

The Kandahar provincial government backed the Taliban claim. It said the helicopter was shot down in Shah Wali Kot district, a rural area north of Kandahar city where insurgents move freely and regularly launch attacks. Provincial spokesman Ahmad Jawed Faisal did not provide details or say how the province had confirmed the information.

Kandahar is a traditional Taliban stronghold and the spiritual birthplace of the hardline Islamist movement, which ruled Afghanistan before being ousted in 2001 by the U.S.-led alliance for sheltering al-Qaida's leaders.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com