Friends of Justin Helton, an Army soldier from Pike County in southern Ohio, said he was one of five soldiers killed in what’s believed to be a friendly-fire attack in Afghanistan.
Dee Gordon, a bartender at the VFW Post 2832 in Piketon, said word spread quickly in the small, rural Ohio community.
She said the parents of Helton, a 25-year-old graduate of Eastern High School in Beaver — located between Portsmouth and Chillicothe — were notified of his death early Tuesday.
Helton’s social-media accounts show he was most recently stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C., and friends said he was a weapons and explosives specialist.
Fellow soldiers posted tributes on their Facebook pages throughout the day. Share your condolences.
Gordon said that the Helton family was involved and well-known at VFW Post 9942 in Beaver. “The whole community is devastated,” Gordon said.
The death was deeply personal to Gordon, whose 19-year-old son is preparing to go through Air Force boot camp next month.
“My heart goes out to the family and friends,” she said. “My son is getting ready to leave July 8 (for boot camp) and it just terrifies me.”
The Department of Defense Tuesday night had not confirmed the names of the troops who were killed. Helton’s name was added Tuesday to the icasualties.org website, which is maintained by a private organization that tracks war deaths.
The deaths were a fresh reminder that the Afghanistan war is nowhere near over for some U.S. troops, who will keep fighting for at least two more years.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the five American troops were killed Monday “during a security operation in southern Afghanistan.”
“Investigators are looking into the likelihood that friendly fire was the cause. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these fallen,” Kirby said in a statement.
In Washington, U.S. defense officials said the five Americans were with a special operations unit that they did not identify. Earlier, officials had said all five were special operations-qualified troops, but later an official said their exact affiliation was unclear and one or more may have been a conventional soldier working with the special operations unit.
The deaths occurred during a joint operation of Afghan and NATO forces in the Arghandab district of southern Zabul province ahead of Saturday’s presidential runoff election, said provincial police chief Gen. Ghulam Sakhi Rooghlawanay. After the operation was over, the troops came under attack from the Taliban and called in air support, he said.
“Unfortunately five NATO soldiers and one Afghan army officer were killed mistakenly by NATO airstrike,” Rooghlawanay said.
The coalition would not comment on Rooghlawanay’s comments and NATO headquarters in Brussels also declined to comment.
However, special operations forces often come under fire on joint operations and are responsible for calling in air support when needed. Because of constraints placed by President Hamid Karzai, such airstrikes are usually called “in extremis,” when troops fear they are about to be killed.
Lauren Kelley, Helton’s girlfriend of about two years, was too overwhelmed and distraught to talk Tuesday evening, said her father, Paul Kelley.
Helton’s immediate family could not immediately be reached.
Robie Day, 30, a pastor at Grace Brethren Church in Piketon, said he’s known the family for a long time. He received word of the death Tuesday morning when he got his first prayer request.
Day said he grew up around the corner from the Heltons and helped his father, Rob Day, coach baseball when Helton was on the team at Eastern. Helton pitched and played the outfield for the 2006 team that won the conference championship and advanced to the state regional.
“Justin was one of those kids that always had a smile on his face,” Day said. “He was quiet, but he was a great leader and one of those friends you love to have.”
Day said he believes that Helton enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school.
Staff writer Barrie Barber and The Associated Press contributed to this story.