Soldiers on the road to recovery
Rick Ravenscraft was at home in Cincinnati on Monday when he got a call from a National Guard officer who said his son had been in an accident.
"As soon as he said that, I went blank," the 50-year-old bridge inspector said last week.
Ravenscraft said he didn't hear anything else the officer said.
It took a few minutes for it to sink in but, as soon as he hung up the phone, Ravenscraft said, he started searching for flights to Texas. In less than 24 hours, Ravenscraft was on his way to College Station.
His only son -- 24-year-old Sgt. Richard Ravenscraft Jr. -- was injured last week in a Black Hawk crash that killed two men and injured two others.
The Iraq veteran remained in the intensive care unit at College Station Medical Center this weekend. Officials said he was improving but would not release his condition.
Also injured in the wreck were 1st Lt. Ellis Taylor, 31, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matthew Smith, 41, who remained hospitalized at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Hospital officials said Taylor was stable but would not be more specific about his condition. Officials refused to release any information about Smith's condition.
Friends of all the men said they were recovering.
Recent Aggie graduate 2nd Lt. Zachary Cook, 22, and Sgt. Charles C. Mitts, 42, were killed in the crash, which occurred on the Texas A&M University campus around 3 p.m. Monday.
Rick Ravenscraft, along with his daughter-in-law and several close friends, has been at The Med all week as Richard Ravenscraft Jr. slowly got better.
It's been a tough wait, they said Friday.
Rick Ravenscraft said he'd been sleeping in his son's hospital room, making sure he's there in case his son needs anything.
His son woke up a little bit Thursday and spoke Friday.
"His first word was 'doctor,'" his friend and fellow soldier Sgt. Richard Pickell said.
Those gathered around him had trouble understanding him at first, Pickell explained. The breathing tube had recently been removed, and his throat was raw.
It took a few seconds before he could get the word "pepper" out.
"The first thing he wanted was a Dr Pepper," his dad recalled, laughing.
Richard Ravenscraft Jr.'s first words were comforting, they said, and marked a hopeful step on what could be a long road to recovery.
"He's come a long way in the last couple of days," his dad said.
"It's easier now since he's doing better," Pickell said. "It's a lot easier now that he can talk."
National Guard Col. James Kenyon said the families of Taylor and Smith are also encouraged as their loved ones slowly improve.
Smith's wife was due to give birth to their first child this weekend. Kenyon said hospital officials planned to have Smith and his wife share a recovery room.
"He's been in and out of consciousness, and that was one of the first comments I heard that he made is that he was not going to be part of the birth," said Kenyon, a friend of Smith's.
Kenyon, who has worked with all four of the National Guard members who were on the helicopter, said Taylor and his wife, Jennifer, have three young children. He said that when he talked to the family last week they "were doing well."
Denton attorney Hank Paine Jr., who attended A&M with Taylor's father, said he'd known Taylor since he was born.
"Ellis is just a great big, fun-loving kid," Paine said. "He's gung-ho, patriotic and lives and breathes the military and lives and breathes A&M."
Taylor attended A&M for four years and was a member of the Class of '99 but didn't graduate. Paine said he joined the military and was deployed to Iraq when the war started.
He said Taylor was one of the soldiers who rescued Pfc. Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital after her capture in 2003. Taylor was deployed a second time in 2006, along with Mitts and Smith.
Kenyon said Smith had served with the National Guard for at least 15 years and had been deployed three times in addition to his most recent tour in Iraq. He was deployed to Bosnia twice and went to El Salvador, where, Kenyon said, Smith was second-in-command under him.
Kenyon said he was completely comfortable leaving Smith in charge whenever he wasn't there.
"He was always the person I would turn to to get something accomplished," Kenyon said. "He's a very trustworthy individual."
Smith's tenacity and good humor are qualities that will help him recover from Monday's accident, Kenyon said.
"I think it will help him get through," he said. "I believe he will fully recover."
In Iraq, the three men flew Black Hawks with the Texas Army National Guard 36th Combat Aviation Brigade until their return in August 2007.
Richard Ravenscraft Jr. was deployed with Pickell as part of a separate unit last year. The two returned to the U.S. in April.
Pickell's wife, Tara, who has also spent the week at the hospital, said she and Richard Ravenscraft Jr.'s wife grew closer during the year their husbands were in Iraq.
"It was hard the whole time they were away, and then for this to happen so close to home," she said. "You think: Did this really happen?"
Richard Ravenscraft Jr. and his wife of four years have a 2-year-old daughter.
'Always wanted to fly'
Ravenscraft was accepted into the National Guard's aviation unit in December, a few weeks before the crash.
When he found out he had been accepted, Pickell said, he was "ecstatic."
"Like [his wife] said, he was like a little kid when he got his flight suit," Tara Pickell said.
On Monday, he was an observer on one of his first training flights when the Black Hawk crashed, Kenyon said.
His dad said he was on his way to achieving a lifelong dream.
"The kid always wanted to fly helicopters," he recalled.
He is currently awaiting acceptance as an officer in aviation.
Friends said Richard Ravenscraft Jr. pursues what he wants with single-minded determination.
"When there was something he wanted, he gave 100 percent," Pickell said, adding that his friend would spend hours interviewing aviation officers about what their jobs were like.
"He's been like that since he was a kid," his father explained.
Rick Ravenscraft has supported his son in everything he's done, he said. When his son called him to tell him he planned to join the U.S. Army Reserves, he said, he was all for it.
"He knew what he wanted to do. If that's what he wanted, I was 100 percent behind him. He's my only son," he said.
Rick Ravenscraft said he chose to keep his son in College Station because of the quality of care.
"I do want to thank the Army and all the staff at the hospital. I couldn't ask for a better group to do this," he said.
On Duncan Field Saturday, little remained of the wreck. Officials spent last week studying the remains of the Black Hawk UH-60. The crushed body of the helicopter was taken to Austin on Saturday morning.
Investigators with the National Guard said it could be months before officials know what caused the helicopter to spin out of control on takeoff.
A week ago, a group of Texas Army National Guard soldiers flew five Black Hawk helicopters to College Station for a training exercise.
There, the group met with Army officers assigned to the exercise, including A&M graduate Zachary Cook.
More than 100 Rudder's Rangers in face paint and camouflage gathered on Duncan Field on Monday for a trip to Camp Swift in Bastrop County for a three-day training exercise.
The annual Winter Field Training Exercise, which officials said has been going on for more than 30 years and is one of the most realistic exercises that cadets perform while in the ROTC, was canceled Monday a0fter the accident.
Cook died Monday at St. Joseph Regional Health Center in Bryan, where he was taken by ambulance after the accident. More than 100 of his friends and family members gathered at the hospital.
The former member of the Corps of Cadets graduated from A&M in December and was awaiting his assignment to report to officer training school as part of U.S. Army aviation.
A memorial service to honor Cook is set for 5 p.m. Tuesday in Rudder Auditorium on the Texas A&M campus.
Mitts died two days after the accident in Houston's Hermann Memorial Hospital.
He had been recognized throughout his life of public service for life-saving acts and his counterterrorism work with the FBI.
His friends said last week that Mitts left a "massive footprint" on the members of the National Guard and with the people he helped.
A survivor's resolve
Rick Ravenscraft said he hasn't told his son yet that his friends are dead. He said they expect Richard Ravenscraft Jr. to be transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center this week.
Once he's transferred, he will probably undergo months of physical therapy and rehabilitation.
Within the first few hours he could talk, Pickell said, he asked how the others were doing.
"He knows something bad happened," his dad said.
Although Rick Ravenscraft said it could be months before his son recovers fully, there's little doubt in his mind that he will want to fly once he's healed. Richard Ravenscraft Jr. is not the kind of person to give up on his goals, his friends said.
"I'm sure he will [continue to fly]," his dad said. "I don't think this will deter him at all."