Local father:His son wasa thrill-seeker

Silence hangs over the Boulder Avenue home of Charles and Noella Essex in Crescent City.

Inside, a candle flickers. A photograph sits on the dining room table surrounded by sympathy cards and condolences.

In it, two men and two women, one wearing a bridal gown, pose for the camera. The man wearing a green Army uniform is Sgt. Richard Essex, Charles' youngest son, who lived in Del Norte County as an infant. Last week, he was one of 11 people - seven Americans and four Afghans - killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. He was 23.

"The military definitely changed him for the good," Charles Essex said Thursday. "He wasn't the same boy as when he was 18."

Richard moved to Kelseyville, southeast of Ukiah, when his parents separated in 1989, but he and his siblings would spend a week with their dad during the summer. Charles said much of their time was spent fishing and water skiing near Cottage Grove, Ore.

Noella and Charles describe their home as military oriented. Charles worked on heavy equipment as a mechanic in the U.S. Army. Richard's uncle is still in the service. And Noella, Richard's stepmother, said her own daughter served eight years in the U.S. Navy.

Richard followed in his father's footsteps, joining the Army in July 2008 after graduating from high school. He became a wheeled vehicle mechanic in November 2008 before transferring to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. His goal was to become a helicopter gunner.

Richard spent four and a half years in the Army, including a stint in Iraq.

He left for Afghanistan last September and was due to come home in November, according to his aunt, Mayme Dyslin.

After receiving news of his death, Noella and Richard flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. They left at 8 a.m. Saturday and came back Monday evening. Representatives from the United Service Organization helped them change planes in San Francisco and again in Charlotte, N.C.

After their arrival, the bodies of Richard and six other servicemen who were killed landed on an aircraft carrier, Noella said. A Black Hawk helicopter sat on one side, she said.

"It was the saddest day, but the proudest day," she said.

Noella and Charles met with Michael Tobin, the best friend of the man who piloted the Black Hawk helicopter that crashed during a firefight with insurgents in a remote area of southern Afghanistan. Tobin told them that the helicopter gunner position was a very difficult position to attain and that the pilot had selected Richard to fill it.

Charles said he thinks Richard, who was a bit of a daredevil growing up, trained for the gunner position for the thrill of it.

"Anybody that can strap themselves in a Black Hawk helicopter with the door open (is a thrill seeker)," he said. "Most people are flippin' afraid to fly, let alone hanging out of a helicopter."

Richard also had a sense of humor and a sensitive side, always cracking jokes. He was a talented bass guitar player and a published poet, Noella said. His book, "Shade Tree Memories," can be found at Amazon.com.

Charles and Noella also met up with Richard's mother, Marion Hopkins and her husband, Brett, who raised Richard and lived in Kelseyville.

"His mom and I were talking and she said he could listen to a song and play it right back," Noella said. "He marched to the beat of his own drum. He could be what he wanted to be and feel good about who he was. Not everybody can do that."

Noella and Charles say they will attend both services for Richard, one at Kelseyville High School where he grew up and the other at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Charles said he is looking forward to the chance to talk with Richard's Army buddies and get a sense of who his son was as a soldier. He added that he thinks Richard would have made the Army his career.

"He just did so well," Charles said. "I don't think even he knew he was going to do so well."

Charles pointed to his son's photograph.

"That was at his sister's wedding. He's got his uniform on," he said. "To do that, you're proud."

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.