Aaron Blanchard, a 32-year-old Army captain and former Selah resident, was killed by enemy fire Tuesday in Afghanistan.
He had been stationed at a forward operating base when it was struck by missile fire, killing him and another soldier, his mother, Laura Schactler of Selah, said Thursday.
No details have been released by the military.
He leaves behind a wife, Becky, and two young children, Hunter and Amalia, in New York state, as well as his parents and two younger brothers.
A graduate of Selah High School, Blanchard served two combat tours in Iraq as a Marine before attending Central Washington University’s ROTC program to obtain an officer’s commission and then becoming an Army helicopter pilot. In Afghanistan, he was to pilot an AH-64D Apache Longbow.
Family and friends say it was what he’d wanted to do since he was a little boy.
“Being a pilot is a very competitive thing, and he excelled at it because he wanted it so bad,” Schactler said Thursday. “He was living his dream, and not very many of us get to do that.
“Aaron had a wonderful spirit. He was so easygoing, and he could get along with anybody, and he wasn’t afraid to try something new,” she said. “He’s left such a mark wherever he’s gone.”
Blanchard’s body was returned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Thursday, where his wife and son; brothers Michael and Karl Blanchard; and father Don Blanchard of Selah were waiting to receive it. Schactler says her son’s body won’t arrive in Selah until sometime next week.
Blanchard had been based at Fort Drum in New York state with his wife and children since late 2011.
He had only been in Afghanistan for about a week before he was killed. He was stationed in Logar Province in eastern Afghanistan.
An email he’d sent to his brother Karl arrived Wednesday. In it, he noted his unit had done some weapons testing and was just getting settled at the base, his mother said. He was hoping to video chat with family members soon.
His unit and friends in the Army called him “Rudy,” after the beloved title character in the early ’90s football movie. He always thought it was because he was short, but that wasn’t the real reason, said Chief Warrant Officer Will St. Clair, speaking by phone from New York.
“We all called him Rudy because he honestly had the biggest heart out of anyone I ever met in the Army,” said St. Clair, a friend who served with him at Fort Drum. “If you told him he couldn’t do something, he’d do it. It wouldn’t matter … how long it took; he would go after it.”
Blanchard grew up in Selah, where he graduated from high school in 1999 before enlisting in the Marines in 2000 and serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He went to CWU’s ROTC program after five years in the Marines because he needed a college degree and an officer’s commission to fly.
He served in a leadership position during his time with the ROTC program. While attending a 2009 training exercise outside of Spokane, he recounted to a Yakima Herald-Republic reporter how his time in Iraq had given him a sense that he knew how to do his job.
But during an ambush practice, he was “killed” for searching a dead body the wrong way. He retained the humility to recognize that he could always improve himself. “That was kind of the turning point. I don’t know everything, and I can learn from these guys,” he said at the time.
That desire to improve has always been apparent, friends and family say.
“He was hard on himself for everything he did, because he always wanted to be better,” St. Clair recalled. “He didn’t realize, and we didn’t tell him, that he was as good as he was. ... I wish I’d told him more.”
His fifth-grade teacher and high school counselor, DeLynn Elliott, said that in elementary school, she would catch him drawing helicopters and airplanes when he was supposed to be focused on schoolwork. He had always wanted to be in the Army, and he’d always wanted to fly, she said.
When he first tried to join the Marines, they turned him down for hearing loss in one ear. But he didn’t give up.
“He hounded them until they basically said, ‘Fine, if you want to be a Marine that bad. ...” Elliott recalled. “Same thing with being a pilot ... even with the hearing loss, they allowed him to do it.”
“If he couldn’t get it by pestering you, he would absolutely get it by showing that he was the best at whatever job you had to do,” she said. “Once you gave him a shot, he would give you 110 percent to show that you’d made that right decision.”
St. Clair says Blanchard was his platoon leader when he arrived at Fort Drum.
“He had a smile that could light up the room, always had a good attitude, always trying to find the humor in anything,” he said. “But when you needed him to, he could be a warrior.
“He was just a guy that you knew that, if he said he was gonna do something for you or take care of you or protect you from something, he would do it,” he continued. “When you met him, you just knew. You knew that what he said, he meant; and what he said was the truth.”
Kevin Robillard, a Granger native who attended CWU’s ROTC program at the same time as Blanchard, said Blanchard always took time to mentor younger cadets.
“That was the big thing for him. He was always making sure that everyone was taken care of and that they had what they needed to be successful,” Robillard said.
The two later crossed paths while attending flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala. Blanchard sat down with Robillard, who serves in the National Guard out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and gave him pointers on how to get through the rigorous training. Blanchard went on to become an attack pilot.
Regardless of the risk in combat, “He knew what he wanted to do,” Robillard said. “He worked his butt off. He definitely earned it.”
Blanchard’s mother said that when her son was in Iraq, she refused to watch the news, but had tried to learn more about what he would be doing in Afghanistan. He told her over and over how safe his Apache was, and how the Army was so much better equipped than their enemies.
“It’s not fair — he was hit on the ground; couldn’t even get up in his helicopter,” Schactler said. “None of it makes any sense.”
St. Clair’s unit is deploying to Afghanistan today, and he says it won’t be the same without Blanchard there waiting.
“Aaron Blanchard is as irreplaceable as someone can possibly get,” he said. “It’s gonna really, really suck to get there this weekend and have him not be there.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the first name of Karl Blanchard.
• Reporter Mark Morey contributed to this report.
• Molly Rosbach can be reached at 509-577-7728 or firstname.lastname@example.org.