|From the Orange County News Source OCregister
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Ex-O.C. man dies in Iraq
Army pilot Cornell Chao, 36, graduated from Sunny Hills High School in 1988.
By TOM BERG
The Orange County Register
He'd become a son to so many.
A symbol of strength and what's right with the young generation.
Members of the Kirkwood Assisted Living Residence in Orange began writing to the handsome helicopter pilot during his second tour of Iraq in 2003. They hung his picture in the lobby and threw him a party when he came home. When he was called to Iraq a third time, they kept writing.
Now he's gone.
U.S. Army pilot Cornell Chao, 36, formerly of Fullerton, died Sunday when his Apache helicopter crashed in Najaf, Iraq.
"I did take a liking to him," said Doris Hunsaker, 93, one of dozens of residents who threw Chao a party in 2004. "I wrote him a Christmas letter this year, telling him how I was feeling, about my broken hip, and I hoped he was well. He was like a brother or a son because we had a lot in common."
Residents learned about Chao through his mom, Jasmine Crowl, who served as activities director there until retiring last year.
Every morning she'd pray for her son in Iraq. Every meal she'd look at his photograph near the dining table. And every evening, she'd pray again for his safety.
"I'd just think, 'He's too far away.' I wished he'd come back home, very soon."
So when two Army officers knocked on her door Sunday, she knew why.
"My heart just felt like it was falling apart," she says. "I kept holding my husband most of the night."
She'd just talked with her son by phone a week ago. He sounded tired, she said. He was flying missions seven days a week.
"Things are pretty tough over here," he told her. "But don't worry about me. The ground troops have it tougher."
She ended the call the way she always did:
"I wish you and your troops a safe return," she said. "I love you."
Chao, a 1988 graduate of Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, served in the infantry during Operation Desert Storm – the first Gulf war – in 1991.
He returned as a helicopter gunner during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, patrolling mostly around Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad.
On March 23, 2003, his Apache Longbow helicopter took more than 25 rounds during an attack 100 miles behind enemy lines. One of the 33 helicopters in his task force that night was shot down, and two pilots were taken prisoner.
Chao escaped serious injury when a round struck the armor plating of his seat, sending shrapnel toward his neck. Instead, it clinked into the barrel of his M-16.
Such heroics prompted letters like this, from an 84-year-old woman who kept in touch:
"You made me feel proud again to be an American. What you're doing shows that bravery will overshadow fear. Thank you for showing us what courage is."
Chao and his gunner, Capt. Mark T. Resh of Pittsburgh, bring the total, confirmed U.S. deaths in Iraq to 3,075, according to the Department of Defense. Chao, a chief warrant officer 3, flew with the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, part of the 1st Cavalry Division based in Fort Hood, Texas.
He bought a house in nearby Killeen, Texas, a few years ago.
Chao played golf for the Sunny Hills High School team during his early years in Fullerton.
"He was a rebel," said his brother Ray Chao, 35, of Lake Forest, who also was on the team. "He'd show up in jeans – you weren't supposed to do that. Or wearing some crazy fashion. He was a trendsetter."
High school classmate S.K. Ahn, 36, of Washington, D.C., remembers playing computer games with Chao, listening to bands like R.E.M. and wondering what they'd do the rest of their lives.
"We were typical O.C. suburb kids," he said. "We'd listen to albums, drive around and go to Taco Bell."
When he heard of a helicopter crash in Iraq last weekend, he began checking the Internet every few hours. He had a strange feeling.
On Tuesday, he was overcome trying to describe his feelings.
"I don't know, man," he said, his voice breaking. "I'll have to tell you tomorrow."
Chao's loss leaves a void in so many places. From Washington, D.C., to Louisiana, where his fiancée received her engagement ring last week, to a community of Orange County seniors.
"I feel real bad because he was such a nice young person and a very good friend," said Hunsaker, a former Kirkwood resident now living in Anaheim Hills.
But nowhere is the void felt more than at home.
"I'm so proud of him," said Crowl, who is awaiting word on when her son's remains will arrive in Orange County for services.
"He loved his country. He said he's not afraid to die for his country. He said that to me."
Contact the writer: 714-796-6979 or tberg[a]ocregister.com