As the family of Army Spc. Justin Helton prepare to leave for Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to meet his body, Helton’s buddies on Wednesday recalled the fun-loving guy with many interests and even more friends.
“We’re all trying to celebrate the life of Justin, but on the other hand, you’re still looking at the downside of things and that’s that we lost a great guy and a great friend,” said Cory Veach, a longtime pal of Helton. “He never met a stranger. He could go into a room full of people and by the time he walked out, he was friends with everybody.”
Helton’s family said he was one of five U.S. soldiers killed Monday night after an accidental airstrike by coalition forces in Afghanistan. The U.S. Department of Defense has not officially confirmed the names of those who died in the so-called “friendly fire” incident.
News spread fast in the hilly Appalachian area of Pike County about “Buck” Helton, 25, being killed.
“I got the phone call early (Tuesday) morning and I mean I’ve been heartbroken ever since,” Veach said. “It’s like somebody sucked the life out of you…. This was the last mission that he had to do and then he didn’t have nothing to do for like the next month over there. Very unfortunate.”
Helton’s immediate family hadn’t spoken publicly late Wednesday afternoon, and friends said family was set to travel to Delaware to eventually bring Helton’s body home.
But from Eastern High School to the American flag at half-staff at the local VFW, the community was mourning a native son who loved hunting, fishing, baseball and cherished his girlfriend, friends and family.
“Everywhere you go in the little village here in Beaver, that’s all everyone is talking about,” said Eastern Local School District Supt. Neil Leist. “Our sadness for the family as well as thanking the family for him serving. To have one serve and give the ultimate sacrifice to the country with his life, we’re very proud.”
Helton served with the 18th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company at Ft. Bragg, N.C., and was motivated to join the military in 2010 on what friends said seemed like the spur of the moment. He later told his friend Tim Hattle he wasn’t worried about going to Afghanistan.
“It was a little shocking at first,” said Hattle, a friend of the Heltons since second grade. “We had a buddy that was in the Army at the time. He had just come back from overseas and I think that Justin seeing that made him want to join and do the same thing, do the right thing for the country.”
Rob Day, who coached Helton on the Eastern baseball team that made the regional semifinals in 2006, recalls getting — and giving — good-natured jabs.
“He shot a (young) button buck one year … so I gave him a real hard time,” Day said Wednesday. “I called him ‘Button Buck.’ The kids, just from that day on, went with ‘Buck.’ “
Helton didn’t get on the diamond much his freshman and sophomore seasons, but Day said the teen with the ‘ornery grin’ decided he wanted to pitch.
“Pitching is not something you can just pick and do and be successful,” Day said. “But he’s one of those rare cases. I let him pitch (batting practice), some scrimmages and pitch a little bit here and there. By the time he was a senior, he wasn’t a starter for me, but he was probably my top reliever.”
Veach said he treasures the times with Helton when they’d fish or just hang out at the VFW. Hattle, who has a family with two children, said Helton and his girlfriend Lauren Kelley of Waverly were talking about starting a family of their own.
“She’s a real good girl; that just breaks my heart,” Hattle said. “They were talking about getting engaged.”
Asked what people should know about Helton, Veach said: “That he was a hero. That he was just more than a name on a piece of paper that didn’t make it home. They should know that he was a great, outstanding young man that would do anything in the world for anybody.”
The motto on the 2006 Eastern High School class photo hanging reads: “You only live once, but if lived right, once is enough.”
Choking up, Hattle said of Helton: “I think he lived up to that.”