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FORT CARSON, Colo. (AP) -- Fort Carson, already hit hard by the conflict in Iraq, suffered its single heaviest combat loss since the Vietnam War with the deaths of four soldiers aboard a helicopter shot down near the Euphrates River.
Many of the victims of Sunday's attack were headed out of the country for R&R or emergency leave. One, Fort Carson-based Sgt. Ernest Bucklew, 33, had been on his way home to attend his mother's funeral in Pennsylvania.
"Even on your worst day, he knew how to make you laugh," his wife, Barbara Bucklew, said through tears Monday. "That had to be his best quality."
In all, 16 U.S. troops died and 20 were wounded, including 13 from Fort Carson, in the deadliest single strike against U.S. forces since the invasion of Iraq in March. The military confirmed some of the casualties were from Fort Carson, Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Hood, Texas.
"Iraq continues to be a very dangerous place to serve," Col. Michael Resty Jr., Fort Carson garrison commander, said Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"We provide whatever assistance we can with regard to force protection," including making sure troops are properly trained and equipped, he said. "We need the American people's support to ensure that we can provide those kind of things to soldiers that get deployed."
Fort Carson has sent 12,000 troops to Iraq -- its largest deployment since World War II -- including units from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team and battalions of the 10th Special Forces Group. At least 21 soldiers from the post had already died there, all since President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1.
Lt. Col. Tony Aguto, executive officer with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, told the Colorado Springs Gazette, "We are all just kind of reeling for the moment."
Officials at Fort Carson confirmed the troops were on their way home for R&R.
The Defense Department identified one of the victims as Staff Sgt. Paul A. Velazquez, 29, of California, stationed at Fort Sill, Okla. No hometown was released.
First Lt. Brian Slavenas, a 30-year-old Illinois National Guardsman from Genoa, Ill., was flying the helicopter when it went down, his father said Monday. He was killed in the crash.
Slavenas loved his job flying dignitaries, soldiers, prisoners and equipment, said his father, Ronald Slavenas.
"He described to me seeing all of those places from the air, pointing out archaeological sites like Babylon, and from the air for him it was like sightseeing," he said.
"Our hearts are with all the family and loved ones of those brave soldiers killed and injured in this tragic incident," Illinois National Guard Adjutant General Randal Thomas said.
Four of the injured were with an Iowa National Guard detachment out of Davenport, Iowa.
Bucklew, the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, had recently e-mailed family, saying he didn't plan to take a 10-day leave because it would be too hard on his two sons back in Colorado, said his uncle, Jack Smith. But after his mother died Friday, he arranged through the Red Cross to return.
The Chinook helicopter reportedly also was carrying soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Campbell, Ky.
Fort Hood spokesman Dan Hassett said at least one of the dead was from the Texas post. The victim's name and unit were not released.
Another was attached to the 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell spokesman George Heath said. He said the soldier, who has not been identified, was either a National Guard member or reservist.
At Fort Carson, the troops were saddened to learn of the crash, but they are "also serious and professional and have to continue the mission," said Lt. Col. Thomas Budzyna.
Barbara Bucklew, who lives at Fort Carson, said one of the last e-mails her husband sent to her included his reminisces about times with his mother when he was a child.
"He said he couldn't sleep. He was thinking about her. He couldn't wait to be home," she said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)