Family, Friends Recall SEAL Killed in Rescue Mission

Navy SEAL Erik Kristensen was one of the 16 U.S. servicemen who died late last month in a helicopter crash in eastern Afghanistan. Kristensen was leading a rescue mission on what would turn out to be the deadliest day in SEAL history.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A funeral will be held tomorrow for a Navy SEAL who was one of 16 American servicemen killed last month in Afghanistan when their helicopter was shot down. Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen was leading a mission to rescue fellow SEALs on what would turn out to be the deadliest day in SEAL history. Nancy Marshall-Genzer has this remembrance.

NANCY MARSHALL-GENZER reporting:

Thirty-three-year-old Erik Kristensen seemed to be good at just about everything. He was a gifted writer and loved books. His favorite was "Moby Dick." And he was equally comfortable with a football. This is how a friend, Christian Swezey, describes him as he was at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, DC.

Mr. CHRISTIAN SWEZEY (Kristensen's Friend): When you talk about him, it's almost like talking about five people. You know, he was a football player, he was a lacrosse player, he was the lead trumpet in the band, he did very well academically, socially, you know. Just how lucky we were to be friends with him, 'cause that's a thing that's extremely rare.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Kristensen was the kind of guy you loved to hate, Swezey says, but you couldn't be jealous because he was so nice. He always put others first. His mother, Sam Kristensen, says her son defied stereotypes. He was the only child of a Navy rear admiral and had lived in Japan, Guam and finally Washington. Sam Kristensen says her son never lost his humility even after being accepted into the US Naval Academy in 1990.

Mrs. SAM KRISTENSEN (Mother): He just did not like the spotlight. I mean, he didn't--nobody knew his father was a retired admiral. That was Erik, the background child. You know, he never walked in anyone's footsteps except his own.

MARSHALL-GENZER: That sense of self is evident in the pictures of Erik Kristensen that cover the dining room table of his parents' townhouse on Capitol Hill where family and friends gathered recently to reminisce. There's one photo of Kristensen in uniform, confident and friendly, another with his goddaughter when she was a baby.

Mrs. KRISTENSEN: This is his ability to sleep with his goddaughter when she was first born. I think he was supposed to be watching her, but there was another adult in the room, so both of them were taking their naps.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Kristensen's parents remember that, as a boy, Erik occasionally fell asleep in class and procrastinated a lot, taking forever to make decisions. But Kristensen's father, retired Rear Admiral Ed Kristensen, says that changed as his son got older and grew accustomed to making split-second decisions as a Navy SEAL lieutenant commander. Ed Kristensen says his son was in on the decision to try to rescue four Navy SEALs in eastern Afghanistan who called for reinforcements. He led the mission, which was to be his last.

Rear Admiral ED KRISTENSEN (Retired, US Navy): I'm sure there was no hesitation in his mind as to what his duty was, so he wouldn't have sent anybody else to lead that and, you know, they knew they were going into a hot situation, and that I'm sure that it never ever crossed his mind that he'd let somebody else lead that force in there.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Kristensen's friends and family say he never told them exactly what he was up to in Afghanistan, but they say they're not surprised that he died trying to save others. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Marshall-Genzer in Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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