Two of the service members killed in last weekend's downing of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan were Minnesotans, the Defense Department said Thursday. They were part of a secretive and elite special operations team, and they're being remembered back home as much for their character as their service.
You might not know Nick Spehar, but if you drive on Interstate 694 or 35E in the northeastern metro area, you know his work. The 24-year-old Chisago City native was a welder and construction worker on the crew that "unwove the Weave," the notorious intersection of two freeways in the St. Paul suburbs.
That reroute was a diversion for Spehar himself, according to his dad, Pat, who is an electrician in St. Paul. Nick was a one-time football player and high school swimmer. He won an academic letter at Chisago Lakes high school.
"I tried to suggest to him just to spend a little time, and work and get some money, have some fun, go see some places, just live a little bit," said Pat Spehar of his son.
But what his oldest son really wanted to do was to defend his country, a yearning he'd felt since he'd watched the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. The Spehars are a Navy family, and Nick wanted to be a SEAL -- the best of the best.
His dad said it was a fitting assignment for Spehar after he signed up four years ago. He said he knows the SEALS were lucky to have Nick.
"His 'yes' meant 'yes,' and his 'no' meant 'no," said Pat Spehar. "If you found yourself in a jam, or needed help, he's the one you wanted with you. It didn't matter. If you needed help in pulling out of a snowbank, or you found yourself in physical danger or financial difficulty or whatever, he was the man you wanted with you."
Nick Spehar and his fellow SEALS were flying to help a contingent of Army Rangers under fire when their helicopter was shot down. Five Army soldiers and three Air Force personnel also died, along with eight Afghans.
Also in the helicopter was another Minnesotan, identified Thursday as John Faas, 31, of Minneapolis.
He was one of the class valedictorians at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis in 1998, and was one of the quarterbacks on the school's football team. He once threw passes to Larry Fitzgerald before the future NFL star went to Holy Angels.
"John was one of those rare, rare guys, where, you know, he made every kid around him better," said his former coach Ron Monson.
Carolyn Forsell knew Faas as a student. She kept in touch with him long after he became a Navy SEAL, and was even working with him on applications to get into college while he was in the service. She recalled a story that Faas told her of his unit leader finding a pile of books in Faas's footlocker.
"He lifted out the Bible and he lifted out 'The Odyssey,' which John had read for me in AP English," she said. "And he said, 'Faas! Nobody reads this stuff. Drop to the floor and give me 100!' And I think that was typical of who John was."
Friends said Faas also had an abiding passion for his country. Daniel Enderton was one of his closest friends from grade school, and said Faas wanted to be a SEAL even back then. He said Faas, the son of a psychologist, was "the kind of guy who could have done anything he wanted to."
"In some ways, the world was his oyster. He had kind of the complete tool kit -- very intelligent, very personable, very easy to get along with," said Enderton. "He really could have gone any number of different directions."
Last weekend, Faas got on a helicopter in Afghanistan with Spehar and 21 fellow SEALS, and gave that life to his country.
Funeral arrangements are pending for both men.