He Flew the Flag, and Died for It.
A story of an American hero and his friend
A picture of the flag taken in Iraq, and held by the pilot who flew it (right) and his regular co-pilot.
A flag. It was idea of his, to fly it for a friend. An
army pilot serving overseas, took an American flag flying with him. He carried it aloft for fifty of the
many hours he flew. He even let it fly in the air from his cockpit window, being
held by his gloved hand. Imagine this Stars and
Stripes, fluttering and waving from the aircraft, somewhere in the spacious
sky above the earth below. Most flags are hoisted up to the top of a pole, but this banner was “hoisted” way up there—if
a cloudless day, with a canton of blue, and if a clear night, with a field
On that morning two Apache helicopters took off from their base in Iraq, flying in support of coalition forces. Their whirling rotors lift the armed and heavy aircraft into the air. The helicopters formed up, one ahead of the other. In the trail craft was the pilot who flew the flag. He's the pilot-in-command, the much-decorated and respected Warrant Officer, Keith Yoakum of Coffee Springs, Ala. , flying Crazy Horse 08, No. 02-05337. In the trail position, it allows him to better oversee the flight. In front and lower down, he can see the back of the head of his pilot gunner, Jason Defrenn, of Barnwell, South Carolina, who today is flying in place of Keith's regular co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Brian Carbone. They're flying a reconnaissance mission and in support of four brigades on the ground, around Baghdad.
Red tracers come up in waves and heavy machine gun fire rakes his Apache, riddling his fuselage. He's engulfed in tracer fire. The ground fire is coming up from different directions, an attack that makes it harder to respond to. The enemy below has set up a “kill zone” with heavy machine gun and anti-aircraft fire. Keith's Crazy Horse 08 radios the lead copter to maneuver away from the attack, and it breaks hard right, but the ground fire shifts toward them. Keith's copter warns them, “Now you're taking fire.” Then both aircraft break left to escape the deadly fire.
Amid the withering fire, Keith steers them away from the kill zone and calms those in the other aircraft. As soon as they turn , Keith learns that his critical utility hydraulics are not working, which makes their main gun inoperative. His only usable armaments are some 2.75 rockets which can only be aimed and fired like a rifle. They continue northbound until they are free of tracers whipping by.
His base, now aware of the attack, radios him to abort the mission. The damage he sustained, is such that it would call for him to land in the desert, hoping for rescue, or try to make it back to the airfield. Keith responds that he still has rockets.
The attack on his team was similar to a combat situation just 13 days before, when Keith's own aircraft was the first responder to a downed UH-60 Blackhawk.
Keith elected to stay aloft and fight, even as the warning lights in his cockpit signal the danger he's in. He believes he has only a small window of time to deal with the ambush team before this enemy fades into the countryside, and before they ambush others. The foe is at an advantage, having concealment in the canals and irrigation ditches. His wingman's craft was hit but not as badly as his. Keith is a Master Army Aviator with almost 5,000 flying hours as well as a skilled mechanic. He understood the gravity of his situation. He once told his close friend, that he would never leave a man behind, and faithful to that, he now stays to protect his wingman.
He told his friend that if he could keep the helicopter up, he could fly it. He had a measure of confidence in his machine.
Having assessed the
situation and thinking of danger to others, he told his wingman to find the
enemy and he would fire rockets. About two minutes from the beginning of the
attack that crippled Crazyhorse 08, his wingman turns south as instructed,
to search for the ambush site. In spite of his helicopter's deteriorating
condition, Keith radios, “We're going to climb up and cover you from high
and we're gonna work on rockets.” As Crazyhorse 08 continued to lose
hydraulic pressure, Keith decided he needed to gain altitude and dive
directly at the enemy with this damaged Apache, to fire with precision for
his wingman, and away from the villages and homes in the countryside. I
understand that if you angle the rotor and dip the nose, with sheer muscle
power you can make it gain altitude without utility hydraulics. Keith knew
that by going higher he would be more exposed in the sky and become more of
a target himself.
For his heroic action Keith was nominated by his troop and his CO for the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was cited for “gallantry and courage beyond the call of duty” while covering his wingman in aerial combat in a complex situation. He was commended for “personal bravery and uncommon valor.” Our nation lost a great soldier when his life was taken from him, from his wife and his loved ones. But his sacrifice in combat wasn't the only sacrifice he made. He sacrificed being away from his family. His wife Kelly sacrificed too, in not having him around with her while he was serving abroad, as did their daughters, Katelynn and Kirstee.
Kelly, in a letter written March 31, 2007, said, “He was and always will be a hero to me and with or without this award, I am honored to have the men and woman he served with recommend him. I never doubted that he could give all for those he called brothers-in-arms. Keith was torn between his family at home and the family he had the privilege to serve with. I am so very proud to have been his wife, friend and pupil on this eighteen year journey ~ I only wish it could have been longer.”
Letters supporting the Medal of Honor being awarded to Keith, were sent privately to the Honorable Pete Geren, the Secretary of the Army, and to President George W. Bush. On the outside of the envelope to the President was a penned sketch of the medal and these words “for a fallen hero and brave American...” Inside, it spoke of the example of such a brave soul for the dangerous times ahead. But, as it turned out, Keith was awarded the next highest honor instead, the Distinguished Service Cross. His pilot gunner CW 2 Jason Defrenn, was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star for Service and a Purple Heart.
A public, posthumous presentation of the DSC took place on Veterans Day 2007, at Hemet, California, where Keith grew up. His wife Kelly came from Coffee Springs, Ala., to receive the honor for him. She was accompanied by their daughters and Keith's twin brother, Kevin. The day before the ceremony, they stopped to see Keith's friend.
Speaking at that ceremony was Keith's CO, Capt. Lee Robinson. Brig. Gen. Ricky Rife of the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, presented the award, first to his wife and then to his parents, Phoebe and G.W. Yoakum. Gen. Rife was one of Keith's former commanding officers. At a restaurant the following day, the general sought out Keith's friend, to sit with him at breakfast. Keith had told Rife if something happened to him, to look his friend up; Keith said he'll be at Hemet-Ryan Field.
At the presentation
ceremony, Keith's daughters Katelynn, 17, and Kirstee, 15, stood in back
with his friend, behind the other attendees. In doing so, they honored him,
too. Being in back, was kind of symbolic, as he was part of Keith's
background and past. He was instrumental in Keith becoming an aviator and
was there at the very beginning of that quest.
The transmission shop was in line with the Hemet-Ryan airfield, and Joe noticed how Keith would run out of the shop, to watch a plane take off and disappear in the distance. He told Keith one day, “If you like planes so much, why don't you learn to fly”? Keith replied, “I've been told I'm not smart enough.” Joe responded, “If I can do it, you can do it.” He himself was an air force veteran who learned to fly as a civilian. At the end of the work day he told Keith to meet him at the airport on Saturday.
And Keith was there. Joe walked him around the Cessna 150, doing a preflight with him and explaining controls. Then he watched as a Certified Flight Instructor took him up. Keith thoroughly enjoyed it. From then on there was no stopping him. Joe said, “He spent all the money he made on flying and dreamed of being an aviator of some kind. He cleaned yards. He did anything and everything to fly. He spent money that was not even cold yet.”
When he was 18, he earned his civilian pilot's license. Joe was there the day Keith soloed in the Cessna 150 at Hemet -Ryan, watching him take off, soar through the air and come in for a landing. Not much older than Keith, it was at Hemet that a 19-year-old Chuck Yeager took primary pilot training in 1942, and would become the first pilot to fly faster than sound.
Keith and Joe's friendship went beyond the shop and the airfield. Joe lived on a rocky upland called Polly Butte, and Keith would go up there to visit, where he blent in with the family, as if being a part of it. Joe's daughter Kathy called him “little Brother,” and he called her “Sis,” as in “Hey Sis, what's up”? The grandchildren called him Uncle Keith.
Joe's granddaughter Marcie remembers that as a child Keith was teaching her how to rappel down a large boulder. One day, she tried it by herself and got stuck. Keith went looking for her and found her on the side of the boulder, unable to get up or down. He laughed good-naturedly and pulled her up. Then he showed her what she did wrong and told her to do it again. She was crying and had skinned knees, and said, “I can't.” Then Keith told her once more, to try it again. She did and she was successful at it.
Another occupant of Polly Butte was Joe's dog Sam, a black lab. On occasions, Keith would fly over Polly Butte in a small plane, pull back the throttle and let the engine idle. The plane would be relatively silent, sailing above. He'd yell down, "Sambo!" and Sam would look up. He knew Keith really well and Keith's voice. He would chase after the plane as the terrain would allow.
Then the time came
when Keith joined the military. When he went to flight school, he asked his
friend, “If I get my wings, will you pin them on me”? Joe said
he would and when Keith earned them, Joe traveled to Ft. Rucker, Ala., for the
ceremony. Keith's CO said to Joe, “You are Keith's inspiration.”
At that same time another person boarded the van with his entourage to be shuttled out to his plane. As he got in, he introduced himself to Joe with a handshake, saying, “Hi, I'm Gene Hackman.” Keith's friend responded, “Hi, I'm Joe Riedell."
After dropping Hackman's group off at his plane, the van took Joe to the flight line, where he waited with the escort. At first the Apaches were not showing up. The escort called the tower several times about their whereabouts, but the tower would respond that they hadn't heard. After a negative on her last call, the tower suddenly radioed back, “Oh, here they come, over the fence.”
They came over the
perimeter of the airfield in a impressive display of military might. Keith
radioed permission to land, and it was granted. The helicopters raised so
much dust they had to sweep the runways before allowing the commercial
planes to land. They had flown NOE, Nap of the Earth, following the terrain,
under the radar. NOE is a low altitude flight course to avoid detection,
flying in valleys and folds, using geographical features as cover. Someone
asked Francis how he got out there on the flight line. He just smiled. Keith had
Keith was not only a pilot but a mechanic and maintenance man. Francis recalls his frustration as a youth in the transmission shop one time. He threw his tools down in a trying situation when something didn't go together right. Francis simply told him, “Now you have to pick them up,” a way of saying that won't help. Keith picked them up and went back to work.
Once in a European war zone, he landed to fix an Apache down with a hydraulics problem. Before he went to work a picture was taken of Keith. While on the ground other helicopters covered him from the air. He got it working and flew it out.
Joe was told by one with first-hand knowledge, that if they had a problem, then, like out of fog, here came Keith to fix it. The troops didn't know when he slept because he was always out there on the flight line. Joe said Keith couldn't stand to fail.
Keith had volunteered to go to Iraq. He didn't have to go but could've have had a plum of a job, parachuting with the Golden Knights. He ended up in the tight confines of the Apache where they go up without a parachute.
Two days before he was killed he sent an email, saying, “I'm glad I came. I think I'm making a difference.”
A month and a day after Keith's heroic action in combat, BlackAnthem.Com Military News, Camp Taji, Iraq, carried this story by Capt. Guyton Robinson, entitled: “'Pit Crew” for Aviators...But this isn't NASCAR -- it's war.” The opening line said, “The 1st Air Cavalry Brigade's, "Avengers" maintenance team helps the "Warrior Brigade" set the standard for aviation maintenance at the company level.”After telling what they do, the story concludes by saying, “The Avengers owe their success in the maintenance arena to their mentor, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Keith Yoakum, a maintenance test pilot and fellow Avenger who died in combat Feb. 2, protecting his wing men," said Spc. Dustin Wybrant, from Coweta, Okla., an AH-64D Apache crew chief. Yoakum taught them the maintenance principles and outlook that are still the driving force behind their success. "Mr. Yoakum," said Wybrant, "was the hardest working person I've ever seen. When you have someone working harder than the lowest private out there on the flight line -- as a CW4 -- it tells you a lot about that person. We just try to work harder everyday because we know that's what he would want." Another AH-64D Apache crew chief, Sgt. Yadder Mejia of Houston, said, "We try to carry on Mr. Yoakum's legacy by always pushing ourselves harder. He was a man that always wanted us to do better because he knew that we could."
The story concludes by saying, "The Co. A Soldiers intend to honor CW4 Yoakum's memory by achieving the company's mission of providing mission ready aircraft over the skies of Baghdad to support coalition operations throughout the unit's deployment.” This legacy is a tribute to Keith, who accomplished his dream to become an aviator, and even more. He became a leader and an inspiration to others. His boots and cavalry hat were given to Joe, who turned them over to the March Air Force Base museum in California, where they put up a memorial to Keith.
But Joe didn't turn everything over. He kept the wings Keith gave him and the flag Keith flew for him. While Joe has daughters and granddaughters who care and look out for him, Keith was like the son he never had. Keith's gone, but he lives on, not only in the hearts and memories of his wife Kelly and their daughters--but he also lived on in the heart and memory of his friend, Joe Riedell, now gone himself. He died on February 15, 2014.
Pictures sent to the writer by Michelle Sifuentes, Collections Manager, March Field Air Museum. The picture on the left shows Keith's posthumous DSC award and his knee pad, the cover of which was made of aluminum by Frode Andersen, a friend of Joe. Joe said he always wore it in flight. It seems possible that he may have quickly consulted it during his final moments aloft. On the right is a picture including Keith's cavalry hat and his boots, which were given to Joe but which he donated to the museum.
The picture below — a Squadron Print — is of Crazy Horse 08, No. 02-05337, the very aircraft in which Keith and Jason flew their mission, on February 2nd, 2007. The print was commissioned by their comrades as a tribute to them, and done by the Scottish artist, Berry Vissers, of Squadron Prints Ltd. of Arbroath, Angus, Scotland. Berry gave his permission to use this print with the story here. He wrote to the writer of this story, that not long before the fateful day of February 2nd, 2007, pictures were taken of both men and he used the pictures to model them in the cockpit, and added, "so the crew in the print actually is Keith and Jason!" Berry said, "When drawing on the artwork for this tribute print and working closely with their comrades it almost felt as if I got to know Keith and Jason." Berry, himself, was formerly an F-16 Crew Chief of the Royal Netherlands Air Force.
Copyright © 2006 - John Riedell - All