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Navy SEALs remembered as patriots

Just three months after the nation lauded the anonymous Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden, it is getting to know about their colleagues who died aboard a downed helicopter in Afghanistan.

They came to the special forces from far-flung corners of the country -- some of them motivated by the 9/1 1 attacks that bin Laden masterminded. They were intensely patriotic and talented young men with a love of physical challenges and a passion for the high-risk job they chose.

Brian Bill, for example, had seemingly boundless ambitions, according to those who knew him as a high school student-athlete in Stamford, Conn.

A skier, mountaineer, pilot and triathlete, he hoped to complete graduate school after his military service and then become an astronaut.

"He loved life; he loved a challenge; and he was passionate about being a SEAL," his family said in a statement Monday.

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Aaron Vaughn, a 30-year-old father of two from Virginia Beach, Va., met his wife, Kimberly, when she was a Washington Redskins cheerleader on a USO tour in Guam. Vaughn had aspired to a military career since childhood and told his parents after 9/1 1 that he wanted to become a SEAL.

"He felt, and so did the other members of his team, that the very existence of our republic is at stake," his father, Billy Vaughn, told NBC's "Today" show. "Because of that, Aaron was willing to give his life."

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Jason Workman, 32, of Blanding, Utah, also cited 9/1 1 as his motive for aspiring to join the special forces, childhood friend Tate Bennett told the Deseret News. Workman had completed his Mormon mission to Brazil and Philadelphia, attended college, then joined the Navy with the goal of becoming a SEAL. "Not making it just wasn't an option," Bennett said of his friend, who leaves behind a wife and 21-month-old son.

Workman, Vaughn, Bill and 19 other SEALS were among 30 Americans and eight Afghans killed Saturday when a rocket-propelled grenade fired by a Taliban insurgent downed their Chinook helicopter en route to a combat mission. All but two of the SEALs were from SEAL Team 6, the unit that killed bin Laden, although military officials said none of the crash victims were on that mission May 2 in Pakistan.

Military investigators intensified their probe into the crash, focusing on whether it had been necessary to dispatch the Chinook on the risky mission in the remote Tangi Valley of eastern Afghanistan, according to the Washington Post.

NATO officials in Kabul said a ground team of Special Operations forces had been hunting a suspected Taliban leader in Wardak province when they became engaged in a firefight with several insurgents. Although some of the enemy fighters were killed, the U.S. forces requested reinforcement, NATO said.

A commando force of 22 Navy SEALs and three Air Force Special Operations personnel scrambled for a rescue mission and boarded the Chinook, which was operated by five Army aviators. The helicopter also carried eight Afghan soldiers.

NATO said the aircraft crashed just as it was arriving on the scene, felled by a rocket-propelled grenade. Everyone aboard the Chinook perished, but the U.S. commandos on the ground did not suffer any casualties and were able to fend off the insurgents. They also managed to secure the crash site until another helicopter arrived, military officials said, raising questions for investigators about whether the original rescue mission was necessary.

The crash was a somber counterpoint to the national jubilation that greeted news of bin Laden's death. Yet families and friends of the SEALs killed aboard the Chinook spoke of the dedication and tight-knit camaraderie that tided them through ups and downs.

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Jon Tumilson, 35, of Rockford, Iowa, was remembered as a high school wrestler who later competed in marathons and triathlons as part of his preparation for a special forces career.

"He was willing to do whatever it took. He wanted to be there," neighbor Mark Biggs told the Mason City Globe Gazette. "That was his second family."

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A severe arm injury during fighting in Fallujah in 2004 didn't keep Matthew Mason off the Iraq War battlefield. Nor did it dull the competitive fire of the avid runner and former high school athlete from outside Kansas City, Mo.

Within five months of losing part of his left arm, absorbing shrapnel and suffering a collapsed lung, Mason competed in a triathlon. He soon returned to his SEAL unit.

"He could have gotten out of combat," said family friend Elizabeth Frogge. "He just insisted on going back."

Mason, the father of two toddler sons, grew up in Holt, Mo., and played football and baseball at Kearney High School. He graduated from Northwest Missouri State University in 1998. His wife, who is expecting their third child -- another boy -- also attended Northwest Missouri.

Mason returned to Missouri in May to compete in a Kansas City triathlon, and took his family to Walt Disney World for the first time this summer, Frogge said. "He loved doing what he did," she said. "He was the type of guy who thought he was invincible."

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Three of the crew members aboard the downed Chinook were from the same Army reserve unit -- Bravo Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment -- based at New Century AirCenter in Gardner, Kan.

Spc. Spencer Duncan, 21, of Olathe, Kan., had written to friends about how much he loved working as a door gunner on a Chinook helicopter. But the Kansas City Star reported that he also told friends that he missed Kansas sunsets and lying in a truck bed listening to the radio and cuddling with his girlfriend.

He joined the military in 2008 and had been in Afghanistan since late May.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bryan Nichols, 31, a pilot from Kansas City, Mo., was eager to get back to flying after a stint handling paperwork as a unit administrator. So when the word went out that people were needed to train for a mobilization, Nichols volunteered.

Lt. Col. Richard Sherman, former commander of Nichols' unit, said one of his favorite memories is flying a pace car with Nichols to the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.

"My happiest and saddest memories are now tied to him," said Sherman, who was in command and working as an instructional pilot when Nichols joined his unit.

"He had no enemies. He was one everyone wanted to be around. You just liked flying with him because you knew he was going to improve as a young pilot and get better every time you flew with him."

Specialist Alexander Bennett, 23, couldn't wait to deploy again after returning from spending a year in Iraq in 2009. So the reservist moved on his own from the Tacoma, Wash., area to Overland Park, Kan., to join Bravo Company.

"He wanted to be part of our unit when it deployed," said Sherman. "He was a typical young kid and liked to go out and have a good time."

Former SEAL Howard Wasdin, author of the book "SEAL Team 6," said on CBS's "The Early Show" that elected officials in Washington could learn a lesson from the fallen SEALs.

"We got our politicians pointing the fingers about who's to blame for our credit rating, and in the meantime, you've got the best and the brightest out there giving their lives," he said. "Our leaders need to take a play from the playback of the Navy SEALs: Be a team and quit all the infighting.