Saturday, February 03, 2007

Cornell C. Chao killed in helicopter crash

Army helicopter pilot Cornell C. Chao was a hero in his Orange County hometown, where the residents of a retirement home threw a party for him when he returned from his second tour in Iraq.

A photograph of the 36-year-old pilot, who graduated from Fullerton's Sunny Hills High School in 1988, hung in the lobby at Kirkwood Assisted Living Residence and those living there continued writing Chao when he was shipped back to Iraq a third time.

Army Chief Warrant Officer Chao died Sunday when his Apache helicopter went down near Najaf. Chao was assigned to the 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.

Chao bought a house in Killeen, Texas, near the military base, a few years ago.

"I did take a liking to him," said Doris Hunsaker, 93, one of the Kirkwood residents at the welcome home celebration 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."

Chao's mother Jasmine Crowl was activities director at Kirkwood until her retirement last year.

"I'd just think, 'He's too far away.' I wished he'd come back home, very soon," Crowl said.

She knew it was bad when two Army officers knocked on her door Sunday.

"My heart just felt like it was falling apart," she says. "I kept holding my husband most of the night."

She'd talked with her son by telephone a week earlier and he sounded tired.

"Things are pretty tough over here," he told her. "But don't worry about me. The ground troops have it tougher."

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.

On March 23, 2003, his helicopter took more than 25 rounds during an attack 100 miles behind enemy lines. 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.

"I'm so proud of him," Chao's mother said. "He loved his country. He said he's not afraid to die for his country. He said that to me." s

From the Fresno Bee