Pilot died protecting fellow soldiers

BARNWELL, S.C. --- The theme of self-sacrifice played heavily in Chief Warrant Officer Jason DeFrenn's eulogy.


Two weeks after his death in a fiery helicopter crash in Iraq in 2007, about 450 people packed into First Baptist Church for one of the biggest funerals in his hometown's history.

"My son did something remarkable," Garth DeFrenn said from the podium. "While in combat, he was fired upon. My son decided to come in between the fire. In those few seconds, my son decided to lay down his life so others could live."

For those who knew him well, going back to when he was a long-haired teenager who partied hard, pushed cars and motorcycles to their engine limits, and dreamed of fronting a heavy metal band with his best friends, accounts of what DeFrenn did in his final moments made sense.

He was fearless, something of an adrenaline junkie, and he was fiercely loyal to the other soldiers in his unit. He also seemed invincible, having survived several brushes with death starting when he was a child.

What shocked relatives and longtime acquaintances, they said, was that anyone or anything could kill him.

His father said the insurgents who shot down his son's Apache filmed it and posted it on the Internet, showing the helicopter going down in flames, met by an exuberant prayer chant in Arabic from voices off-screen.

DeFrenn said he never watched the whole film before it got pulled off the Web. It was enough hearing the audio as his wife, Naomi, replayed it dozens of times.

"She couldn't believe it was him," DeFrenn said. "She couldn't believe that somebody could kill Jason. I mean, he always landed on his feet."

LONG BEFORE he became a combat pilot, DeFrenn lived a lifestyle his father described as "wide open." He was a chronic risk taker, the kind of person you might see riding a motorcycle at 100 mph.

One evening when he was 8, his father said, he climbed a tree, stepped on a branch that broke and fell about 15 feet. He suffered multiple breaks in both arms, with bones protruding out of his skin.

A few days later, while he was home with his son, DeFrenn heard a motorcycle revving up outside. He went out the front door and saw his son tearing away, driving the bike with casts on both arms. His father had to chase him down in his truck.

"That's the kind of kid he was," DeFrenn said, laughing. "He had no fear. That's the part that really worried me about him."

He hunted, fished and studied karate. As he got older, he took to drinking beer and "raising hell," his father said.

Glen Rice and Wallace Keisler met Jason DeFrenn in 1988, when they were seniors at Barnwell High School and DeFrenn was a junior. They wanted to start a rock band, and not many people in Barnwell were into heavy metal then.

Keisler said he approached DeFrenn because he had hair down to his chest and was into Metallica, Guns N' Roses, Slayer and Led Zeppelin, among other bands. Keisler asked whether he would be their lead singer.

DeFrenn said that if Keisler taught him to play the guitar, he'd teach Keisler karate.

IN DEFRENN they found a friend who, like them, was determined to fend off small-town boredom. They used to climb water towers, going up the ladder and sliding down on the cross ties.

"That's just the mentality," Rice said. "That's why he did so great in the military. He was fearless."

DeFrenn was intelligent, but also an "extreme partier" with an affinity for fast cars, Rice and Keisler said. He would often drive as if irritated by the limits of gravity and rubber on road, looking for ways to set vehicles airborne, and more than once he walked away from wrecks of mangled metal, somehow with only minimal injuries.

A lot of people around Barnwell talked bad about DeFrenn, saying he was crazy, Rice said.

"Let me tell you," he said, "If he was your friend, you couldn't find a better one."

After high school, DeFrenn spent years knocking about Barnwell, he and his friends still talking about getting serious with their band, which they were going to call Surgikal Steel. They all got matching tattoos on their chests: a circle with a hand in the middle, and an eyeball in the center of the hand.

DeFrenn took classes at University of South Carolina Salkehatchie. He worked at a metal fabrication company, at the Barnwell Pizza Hut, then as a manager at the Bamberg Pizza Hut. He also worked at a gas station.

IN THE late 1990s, he decided to do something different. He told his father in a curt phone call that he was joining the service, hanging up before his father could "argue with him" about it.

The Army changed his personality from somewhat explosive to "deadly serious," his father said. His life gained direction, and he seemed to enjoy it.

"When he was flying his Apache, he would turn the music on," DeFrenn said. "He would have it going in one ear. I guess you'd call him a free bird."

There were other reasons to grow up. He had become a father.

He had his first son, Alex, now 17, with a common law wife who lived with him at his parents' house for about six months, an arrangement that didn't last long. His second wife left him while he was stationed in Hawaii, taking his daughter, Jessica, now 11, and Alex with her back to the mainland.

He met his third wife, Jenny, while working at the Bamberg Pizza Hut, where she was a waitress. After his divorce, they began a relationship and married.

That one lasted because by that time, his father said, the Army had molded him not only into the perfect soldier, but also a responsible husband and father. They had two sons, Michael, 7, and Christopher, 2, who was born four days after DeFrenn died, when the stress of learning of her husband's death caused Jenny to go into labor early.

Jenny DeFrenn did not respond to numerous messages seeking input for this article.

THEIR OWN CAREER PATHS led Rice and Keisler into law enforcement. Rice is now a detective with the Barnwell Police Department, and Keisler is an investigator with the Barnwell County Sheriff's Office.

DeFrenn would come home to visit and was flabbergasted by them, his friends said.

"We told him, 'Well, we never thought you'd go into the military,' " Keisler said.

Rice said that around 2002, DeFrenn came home from Fort Hood, and the two of them bought a case of beer and made plans to hang out at his house all night. Rice had to leave abruptly when he was called out to a standoff situation.

When he got home, Rice said, DeFrenn had drank the whole case by himself. Oddly, he'd also cleaned all the tables, fixed his cabinets and vacuumed the house.

With the onset of war, DeFrenn deployed to Afghanistan, then Iraq. As an AH-64D Longbow Apache pilot, his job was to locate enemy targets and destroy them with fire from above.

It was stressful, mind-consuming work, and things were going badly in Iraq at the time. When he returned from his first tour there, his father said he was considerably less gung ho about the war. He made comments about the government in Washington interfering too much and about how he wanted to just clean Iraq out.

Things were even worse the second time.

He communicated with his family through Yahoo instant messaging, and they could sense the stress and weariness in his writing, which got shorter and shorter. Two weeks before he died, DeFrenn told his father and stepmother that his chopper had been shot up during a flight. Later, at the funeral, they found out his former co-pilot had been hit in the leg.

In those weeks, attacks from the ground on aircraft led to 19 American deaths. Insurgents using powerful anti-aircraft weapons took down one Apache, one Blackhawk and two Defense Department-contracted helicopters.

DeFrenn told his father he was going into a blackout, meaning he was involved in a special mission and wouldn't be able to communicate for a while. The last time he tried to reach his son, a few days before his death, DeFrenn responded that he was tired, had a lot of stuff going on and couldn't talk.

On Saturday, the day after the crash, they got a call from Jenny, crying and hysterical.

"Jason's dead," she said.

DEFRENN DIED , according to accounts from his unit, because he and his co-pilot, rather than landing the Apache after insurgents sprayed their fuselage with machine gun bullets, flew it higher in the sky.

They didn't want to abandon a fellow Apache crew that also came under fire during a reconnaissance mission outside Taji. Nor did they want to leave a band of enemy fighters armed with anti-aircraft guns alive to take anyone else down.

So the two choppers turned back to the ambush site, sweeping the area in a cloverleaf pattern. DeFrenn and Chief Warrant Officer Keith Yoakum, the ranking pilot, went high so they could cover the other Apache as it looked for nests of shooters hiding within the countryside. Their chain gun, the swiveling 30 mm automatic cannon between the landing gear, wouldn't work with the hydraulics system damaged. Yoakum's radio chatter indicated that, from the high altitude, he planned to go into a dive and fire rockets when they found their targets.

But the crippled Apache couldn't handle the climb. It crashed and went up in flames, killing both pilots.

That description of events comes from Yoakum's Distinguished Service Cross citation and from a transcript of their battalion commander's remarks at a memorial for the two, held four days later.

"It was very clear to me," their commander said, citing radio transmissions, "that the lives of their lead aircraft and other aircraft teams operating in the area were of higher importance than their own. Protecting their brothers in arms was very important to Keith and Jason."

DeFrenn's father has a different understanding of how the crash happened, which he said is based on what other pilots in his son's unit who attended the funeral told him, in addition to the Internet film.

IN THAT VERSION, a rooftop sniper fired on three helicopters flying in formation. One chopper was hit and smoking, so DeFrenn rolled his Apache over, positioning himself between the damaged bird and the insurgents so they couldn't take it down. Instead, they took DeFrenn and Yoakum down by firing a surface-to-air missile into the cockpit, where DeFrenn was in the front seat nearest the nose.

DeFrenn said he believes the second version, partly because of the condition of the body that came back.

Either way, he said, his son lost his life protecting another Apache crew.

He was buried at the Allen's Chapel Baptist Church cemetery off State Highway 300, near his grandfather who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and his cousins who were killed in the Civil War.

Three years later, DeFrenn still can't believe his son is not coming back.

"I mean, I watched him jump out of a tree and almost kill himself," DeFrenn said. "And he did that all the way through when he was a child, just one thing after another, but he always seemed to land on his feet.

"This time, the game was too serious."

Rice and Keisler said DeFrenn's death still feels unreal, as if he's still out there somewhere.

"Everything the boy had been through," Rice said, "you just think he'd be the one to outlive everybody."

Soldier's death haunts father
Chief Warrant Officer Jason Garth DeFrenn

AGE: 34

KILLED: Feb. 2, 2007, outside Taji, Iraq, in a helicopter crash, after two Apaches came under fire during a reconnaissance mission

UNIT: 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 227th Aviation Regiment, Fort Hood, Texas


FAMILY: Wife, Jenny; sons Alex, 17, Michael, 7, and Christopher, 2; daughter, Jessica, 11; father, Garth DeFrenn; mother, Fran Sanders; stepmother, Naomi DeFrenn; sister, Aleta Wood; stepsister, Kimberly Knotts; grandmother, Marilyn DeFrenn

MEDALS: Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, three other theater medals

OTHER HONORS: His name is inscribed on a brick in the walkway at Barnwell's Veterans Memorial Park, and on a dog tag hanging on one of 40 white crosses in a far corner of the park grounds. Both are courtesy of the Blackville-based Vietnam Veterans of America, Salkehatchie Chapter 828.