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Losses in Iraq crash a blow to families

Harriet Johnson lost her son, Spc. Darius T. Jennings, 22, in Sunday's helicopter crash.
Harriet Johnson lost her son, Spc. Darius T. Jennings, 22, in Sunday's helicopter crash.

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CNN's Jeff Flock on the family of Chinook pilot Lt. Brian Slavenas.
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(CNN) -- Families of some of the 15 U.S. soldiers killed in this week's helicopter crash in Iraq expressed their grief Tuesday as well as concern over the U.S. mission in the country.

The soldiers were killed and 27 others wounded when the CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter went down Sunday near Fallujah, a hotbed of U.S. resistance, in a suspected missile strike. Initial reports indicated 16 had died. (Gallery: Chinook fatalities)

The crash fatalities along with the deaths of another soldier and two civilians made Sunday the deadliest day for Americans in Iraq since President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1.

"I'm saddened because I know a family hurts, and there's a deep pain in somebody's heart," Bush said Tuesday as he inspected damage from wildfires in Southern California.

"But I do want to remind the loved ones that their sons and daughters, or the sons in this case, died for a cause greater than themselves and a noble cause, which is the security of the United States."

While some family members said the United States must stay the course in Iraq, others cited misgivings about the U.S. presence as casualties mount.

"If we pull out without stabilizing the situation, we'll have pandemonium. It would be a revolution," said Ronald Slavenas, whose son Brian, 30, of Genoa, Illinois, was piloting the chopper.

"We have to keep a stabilizing cap over it and hopefully get more help from other nations and other sources."

Marcus Slavenas, one of Brian's brothers, was more critical: "I don't believe we need to be there. I wish the Iraqis well and I hope they can figure out their problems, but I don't want this to happen at the expense of our boys."

The widow of Staff Sgt. Daniel Bader, 28, of York, Nebraska, said she was crushed that her husband would not see their daughter grow up.

"Now he's not going to know what she's going to look like, what she's going to be or anything because she was just barely 6 months old when he left," Tiffany Bader said.

"I just want the world to know that my husband was a great man. I just want everybody to know that he fought for his country. He was my world. I loved him with all of my heart."

Harriet Johnson lost her son, Spc. Darius T. Jennings, 22, of Cordova, South Carolina.

"He kept saying, 'Mama, I'm ready to come home. You don't see the stuff I see over here,' " Johnson recalled. "What he kept telling me was he was tired, he was ready to come home."

Johnson said she wants to see an end to the U.S. occupation.

"The people over there are telling our American leaders that they don't want us over there and they will continue to kill our American soldiers," she said.

"They're telling our leaders this, so why aren't our leaders listening and bringing our babies home?"

But Johnson said she's proud her son died defending his country. "I want him to be known as Darius the hero because he is my hero. He's 22 years old. He's an Army veteran, but he's a fallen soldier."

The family of Sgt. Steven D. Conover, 21, of Wilmington, Ohio, said he also expressed misgivings before his death, especially after his best friend was killed in a roadside explosion.

Lt. Brian Slavenas, pilot of the Chinook, is recalled by his brother Marcus and father, Ronald.
Lt. Brian Slavenas, pilot of the Chinook, is recalled by his brother Marcus and father, Ronald.

"He said, 'I put him in a body bag and sent him home to his wife and kids,' " recalled Mike Earley, Conover's stepfather. "He said, 'Mom, I've seen far too much. I want to come home.' "

The helicopter was ferrying troops away for rest and recuperation at the time it went down. That timing -- the sudden swing from excitement to grief -- was agonizing for some families.

"You think he wouldn't leave you trying to come home, and that's the part that hurts so bad -- the way he went," said Rose Wilson, grandmother of Staff Sgt. Joe N. Wilson, 30, of Crystal Springs, Mississippi.

The parents of Pfc. Karina S. Lau, 20, said they felt the same way.

"When you have hope that she was coming home on leave, and this happens, it's a double shock," said Augustin Lau, Karina's father.

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