Friday, July 01, 2005

Loss of SEALS/SOAR in Afghanistan...

Steve Reich: always a ‘hero’ Local soldier presumed dead after being shot down in Afghanistan July 01, 2005 By Robert Miller STAFF WRITER Courtesy of Reich family Major Steve Reich, shown above with his wife, Jill, on their wedding day March 19, and 16 other Americans are believed dead after their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan Tuesday. When Steve Reich took the mound for Shepaug Valley High School in the 1980s, he stood in perfect control – of his pitches, his mind, his emotions. There was nothing out of place. Everyone who saw him then will swear today he could have pitched for the pros. But he had a different path in mind – West Point and the U.S. Army, helicopter pilot, command of Special Operations units in some of the most dangerous spots of the world. When he went to Afghanistan for what stretched to four tours of duty, his friend assumed Major Reich’s innate strength – his focus, his determination, his control – would see him through. Wednesday, Major Reich’s friends and family were almost numb, as if one of the stars in the heavens suddenly went out. Major Reich was one of the 17 troops aboard the Army Special Operations MH-47 helicopter that a rocket-powered grenade brought down at dusk Tuesday in the wild mountains of eastern Afghanistan; he may have been its pilot. And while storms have prevented at Army team from reaching the crash site, longtime Reich family friend Gary Fitzherbert said the Army has notified the family about the crash, and they are assuming Steve Reich perished there. “We were all concerned about him,’’ said Scott Werkhoven, his close friend and former teammate. “But everyone felt that if anybody could handle it, it was Steve,” Mr. Werkhoven said. “It’s not a good day.’’ “He was married three months ago to a lovely girl, Jill Blue,’’ Mr. Fitzherbert said. “That makes this even sadder.’’ Major Reich is the second area man to die in the wars of the Middle East. Marine Lance Cpl. John T. Schmidt III of Brookfield was injured in Iraq in January after only two weeks in Iraq. He was awaiting orders when an ammonia tank he was sleeping next to exploded, severely damaging his lungs, esophagus and skin. He died May 11. Steve Reich, 34, was raised in the Marble Dale section of Washington. His father, Ray, is a teacher at The Gunnery, the town’s prominent prep school. His mother, Sue, is a emergency room nurse at New Milford Hospital. He had two sisters – Megan and Annmarie. In a family that stresses volunteerism, social concern and decency, Steve was a perfect fit. “Right in the heart of Washington, there’s the Reich family,’’ said First Selectman Richard Sears. “This is an all-American family, and Steve was an all-American kid – a boy of Washington, a boy of America. “His death,” Mr. Sears said, “is a horrible thing.’’ “They are a wonderful family,’’ said Dave Werkhoven, Scott’s father and coach of the Shepaug Valley High baseball team when the two boys played for it. “They raised their son to be a gentleman.” “Pick the best person you know,’’ Mr. Fitzherbert said. “He wouldn’t have measured up to Steve.’’ “He was a great friend,’’ Scott Werkhoven said. And at Shepaug Valley High School, he was the star pitcher, the handsome lefthander who, without fuss or flash, led the varsity baseball team to a state championship in 1987 – he pitched the final game – and, then, back to title contention in 1989. Although he kept his composure, he was a fierce competitor. “He had a great fastball, he had great control and command of all his pitches,’’ Scott Werkhoven said. “He really had a sense of all the field.’’ “He always wanted to do the toughest things,’’ Dave Werkhoven said. “You want your pitchers to have a 2-to-1 ratio of strikeouts to walks. Steve’s was something like 30-to-1. In his senior year, he only walked nine guys, and five of those were intentional.’’ And while Steve would always listen to his coaches, Dave Werkhoven said, mostly, they just let him pitch his own game. “He had such talent,’’ Mr. Werkhoven said. And while Steve could relax and have fun, Scott Werkhoven said, his friends knew if there was something he wanted to do, he would find a way. “He was just one of those guys who could just do anything,’’ Scott Werkhoven said. Early on in his high school career, Mr. Fitzherbert said, Steve set his mind on another goal – winning a place at West Point and a commission in the U.S. Army. Given his focus and determination, he did just that. “It really was his wish to go to West Point from high school on,’’ Mr. Fitzherbert said. “And he loved it.’’ At West Point, he was, again, a star pitcher as well, with one of the lowest collegiate earned run averages in the nation during his years there. After graduation in 1993, he pitched briefly for a Baltimore Orioles farm team. But rather trying for the big leagues, Steve Reich took his drive to the field of field of combat. “He was one of those guys who makes us feel comfortable here because we know he is over there,’’ Dave Werkhoven said. The local product rose to the rank of major and for the past six months was a company commander in the 160th Aviation Regiment – a Special Operations unit known as “The Nighthawks.’’ Major Reich learned to pilot three different models of Army helicopters, including the MH-47, a special operations model of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter that crashed Tuesday. Knowing Major Reich, he was probably at the controls, when the craft went down, Mr. Fitzherbert said. Army officials said the crash occurred in the eastern Afghanistan province of Kunar in the mountains near Asadabad. The unit was taking part in an offensive against al-Qaida militants in what the Army calls Operation Red Wing. The helicopter and its 17 troops were fighting the growing insurgency by Taliban and al-Qaida forces against the newly-elected Afghan government and its American allies. His friends said that Major Reich never expressed a single doubt about the American mission in Afghanistan or his role there– even after his marriage. “His family said he told them once, ‘I love my wife and I love the men under my command,’ ’’ Mr. Sears said. And that All-American purity may also have been at the core of Steve Reich, who in all things, was a star. “He was a hero in high school, and now, a hero again,’’ Dave Werkhoven said. And like a star – not some meteor flashing in the sky – his light, his memory, will shine for a long time to come. “We sit here and wonder why this is all happening,’’ said neighbor Nancy Mygatt. “There are things you just have to work out for yourself. But for Steve, it was all about serving his country. “I don’t think he ever thought why he was over there,” she said. “He just thought it was the right thing to do.’’

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