Navy SEAL known as 'quiet leader'

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 9, 2011 - 5:13 AM

Nicholas Spehar of Chisago Lakes, Minn., was among those killed when a rescue helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.

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Craig Swanberg, 46, knew Nick Spehar and described his family as “salt-of-the-earth people.”

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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CHISAGO CITY, MINN. - Nicholas Spehar was a "quiet leader" -- a three-sport and academic star who "focused on getting things done," his high school principal said Monday of the U.S. Navy SEAL from Chisago City.

"Nick was an active young man, and if he said he was going to do something, he did it," Chisago Lakes High School Principal Dave Ertl said of Spehar, 24. "I could see him as a Navy SEAL and giving 110 percent to serve his country."

Spehar gave more than that. He was among 30 U.S. troops killed, along with seven Afghan commandos and an Afghan interpreter, when their CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down, apparently by a Taliban-launched rocket-propelled grenade, Saturday night in Afghanistan's Tangi Valley.

It was the deadliest single-day loss for U.S. forces since the war in Afghanistan began. Many of the Americans who died were members of Navy SEAL Team Six, the unit that conducted the raid that killed Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Pakistan. (Spehar was not involved in that mission, nor were any of the other SEALs killed Saturday.)

On Monday, an almost eerie hush hung over the cornfields straddling the dirt road that leads to the Spehar family's Chisago City home, a 45-minute drive northeast of Minneapolis. Large Navy and POW-MIA flags that book-ended the Stars and Stripes above a storage garage hung listless. The house, save for a woman sitting on the front step, was as empty as the family surely is feeling.

The Spehars received the grim news "a few days ago," younger brother Luke Spehar, 23, said earlier in the day in a brief telephone interview. He said the family did not want to talk about Nick, the second oldest of five children, until after his funeral.

"We need time," he said.

'Pray for all the soldiers'

A Pentagon spokesman said that flag-draped caskets bearing the remains of the 30 troops -- 22 Navy SEALS, three Air Force Special Operations airmen and five Army aviators -- are scheduled to arrive at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Tuesday. The Pentagon said it will prohibit news coverage of the return because the catastrophic nature of Saturday's crash made it impossible to preliminarily identify any of the service members, and their remains are mingled pending identification by experts.

From the Wagon Wheel cafe in Chisago City to the Swedish Inn restaurant in neighboring Lindstrom, many who knew Spehar declined to talk about him, in deference to his family's wishes. Many learned the news from a Facebook posting by younger brother Jacob, 21, who asked that others "refrain from putting it on the Internet."

"They're in pain," said the Rev. Mark Wehmann, eucharistic minister at the Church of St. Bridget of Sweden in Lindstrom, where some of the Spehar family reportedly attended mass Monday. "Pray for them. Pray for all the soldiers."

Craig Swanberg, 46, of Chisago City, said he watched the Spehar kids grow up; they played football with his kids.

"The whole family is a down-to-earth group ... nice, everyday, salt-of-the-earth people," Swanberg said. "Nick was a big kid, a power lifter, who was not as softspoken as his brothers."

Spehar, who graduated from high school in 2005, played on Chisago Lakes' football and baseball teams, "when those high-school teams were really something special, very successful," Ertl recalled. Spehar also starred on the swimming team -- appropriate for a Navy SEAL -- and was an academic letter winner.

"He always gave everything his all," Ertl said. "I know Nick, and if there's one message that should be taken away about Nick and the lesson he taught us, that's it.

"We have 1,200 students in our school. You don't get to know them all. But Nick was somebody you noticed."

The woman sitting on the Spehars' steps said she was a relative looking after the home while the family retreats to react and mourn.

"He was a hero," the woman said with tears in her eyes. "He was a hero."

The Associated Press and Washington Post contributed to this report. Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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