California Town Hit Hard by War Losses

Hemet is a dusty desert town, two hours east of Los Angeles. More than half its population is retirees, many of them living in mobile-home parks. Then there are the new housing developments, filled with lots of young people. Many of them have been signing up for the military — in spite of the recent deaths of three soldiers from Hemet.

"We've got a lot of patriots in Hemet. We're certainly proud of that," Vice Mayor Lori Van Arsdale said. "We feel like we have given our share to the country. I hope it stops. We've had three in the last six weeks."

At Hemet High, five graduates' photos are on display in a memorial to fallen heroes.

"The most recent one is a graduate of 2004, Kenny Stanton," said Principal Bill Black. "Then a graduate of 2003, Michael Estrella; Charles Sare, 2001; Jason Chappell, 2000. And actually, the most recent one was from the class of 1984, Keith Yoakum.

"Hopefully, we won't have to add to it."

Teachers still remember Chappell competing on the academic decathlon team, and Sare raising pigs for his agriculture class. Estrella once came back in uniform to visit the Junior ROTC students.

Gabriel Necoshea, 17, is in Junior ROTC, and he said he was proud of all the Hemet High graduates who died in Iraq.

"I'd see them having died for what they believe in," he said. "That's more freedom than anything else. I'm just grateful there are people willing to go and fight for us. It's the path I've chosen too. I mean, it's the way I'm going."

Necoshea said he plans to attend the Air Force Academy.

Small airplanes, including vintage World War II fliers, take off and land at the Hemet Ryan Airport. Manager Lloyd Cliff says this is where a lot of Army cadets learned to fly — among them test pilot Chuck Yeager, who later went on to break the sound barrier.

"He learned how to fly here, just like Keith," Cliff said.

He means Army Chief Warrant Officer Keith Yoakum, 41, one of Hemet's latest casualties.

Yoakum logged more than 500 combat hours. Last month, while flying an Apache helicopter, he was shot down near Tajib, Iraq.

"He went down in a ball of fire. But I'll tell you this much, if that aircraft could have flown, he would have flown that bastard," Joe Reidell said.

Reidell choked back tears thinking about how his friend "Keithbob" died.

"We never figured he'd be the one, because he was such a damn good pilot," Reidell said. "To me, he was most ambitious, amazing young man I've ever known. The kid worked no less than 14, 16 hours a day, everyday, and he loved what he was doing."

Reidell opened one of airport's old wooden hangars to reveal a sporty old airplane Yoakum had been fixing up before shipping off to Iraq.

"That's a Fairchild 24. It's a 1946. He wanted to master this sucker," Reidell said. "He lived to fly."

Keith Yoakum and other Hemet High heroes will be soon be memorialized, when the Veterans of Foreign Wars name the local post after them.

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