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A sergeant who always put his men first

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq Julio Ordonez was a fixture at the San Antonio Army Aviation Support Facility just east of downtown, a man described as a mentor to younger Soldiers. Quiet, respectful and down to earth, a first sergeant who always was last — by design.

“I was sitting here thinking, why wasn’t he here already?” said Texas Army National Guard Sgt. Tom Rios, 47, of San Antonio.

“What most first sergeants did, they came over here first to get things arranged for their units. They got here, but he did the opposite — he stayed back to make sure that everybody back there was taken care of before they moved forward. He came with the last group of guys.”

In leaving Kuwait among the last group early Thursday, Ordonez and six other Soldiers from a Grand Prairie-based Texas Army National Guard unit died when their CH-47 Chinook crashed southwest of Baghdad — marking the Texas Guard’s worst day ever in the Iraq war.

They were part of a four-ship formation headed here to join a growing group of Texans, a San Antonio medical evacuation company among them, who will fly mercy missions for the next nine months. Military officials in Baghdad said the copter went down at 12:01 a.m. Thursday about 60 miles west of Basra.

It was the second Army helicopter casualty this month. Chief Warrant Officer 4 Michael Slebodnik, 39, of Gibsonia, Pa., died Sept. 11 of wounds suffered when his OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter took small-arms fire near a coalition base in Afghanistan.

In the latest incident, four of the Chinook’s crew came from Texas, while three were from Oklahoma Army National Guard. Col. Bill Meehan, a spokesman for the Texas Guard, said the crash marked the single worst loss of life since Sept. 11, 2001 for his organization, which had seen a total of five killed in Iraq.

“As we grieve with so many in our community over this extremely unfortunate news, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of these citizen-Soldiers,” said Lt. Gen. Charles G. Rodriguez, the Texas Guard’s adjutant general.

The crash remains a mystery but is not believed to have been caused by enemy fire. It left the Texans badly shaken, and cast a long shadow over their duty tour here. One officer with the San Antonio unit, Maj. Carlos Tamez, said the lack of clues surrounding the crash is a cause of frustration, adding, “We just don’t have the details.”

The Chinooks had left a base in Kuwait following a sandstorm that grounded air operations. As they headed to Balad the Alamo Dustoffs, as the San Antonio aviators are called, were finishing their first day of orientation flights with a 101st Airborne Division unit that is preparing to head home.

With news of the crash spreading, aviators and ground crews here grappled with the loss of friends, some they had known for years and even decades, while preparing for daily missions.

“It kind of opened my eyes to the fact that in this job we will lose our friends, our co-workers and sometimes our loved ones,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Crystal Olier, a 25-year-old pilot from Houston.

At 5 feet, 6 inches, Ordonez could keep a low profile. But he was easily spotted at the Texas Guard’s air facility at Martindale Army Airfield off Interstate 10 — officially, the San Antonio Army Aviation Support Facility — which Soldiers said was his place of work for more than 30 years. They said he was nearing retirement and had completed a tour of Iraq only last year with the Texas Army National Guard’s 36th Combat Aviation Brigade.

But friends say there was no doubt about Ordonez’s next move after being promoted to first sergeant this year with the 2nd Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment, referred to here as the 2-149 General Aviation Support Battalion. A crew chief in previous years, he had become a leader of the battalion’s enlisted men. Staying behind as they pressed on into the war zone simply wasn’t in his blood.

“He came back and I think he was very, very close to retirement. He was a very good guy, always friendly, very mellow, very personable, always ‘Good morning, how are you doing, Top?’” said Texas Army National Guard Sgt. Jennifer Krausch, 32, of San Antonio.

A fellow guardsman, Staff Sgt. Richard Ramirez, said he had long known Ordonez and found him to be a strong, positive mentor – the kind that would walk crews through a problem, stressing that they never take shortcuts or the easy way out.

“People looked up to him; he was almost like a big brother,” said Ramirez, 54, of San Antonio. “If you needed some advice he was there for you. He would never steer you in the wrong direction.”

After dinner Friday, Rios sat on a dusty park bench and found it difficult to believe that his friend was gone. He wiped tears from an eye as he thought about Ordonez and the next job to do, the need to keep his eyes on the job at hand — ensuring that the helicopters here are safe to fly.

“It hasn’t hit yet,” he said. “I mean, I lost two good friends on that bird and I know that with Ordonez it probably won’t sink in until — if I make it back — when I get back to work and see that empty desk there.”

On Friday, the Ordonez family declined an interview request made by the San Antonio Express-News through the Texas Guard.

Sig Christenson - Express-News
19 Sep., 2008

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