John Faas, a redheaded kid from Minneapolis, was just a big sweetheart with a smile that radiated from his eyes. So those who knew him well thought the idea that he wanted to be a Navy SEAL was hard to imagine.
It is even harder for friends and family to accept that Faas was one of two Minnesotans to die in the attack that claimed a helicopter full of Navy SEALs in Afghanistan.
"John was a man of unquestionable integrity and courage, as were those he served with,'' his family said in a statement Wednesday night. "He became a SEAL to serve his country and to make the world a better place for those less fortunate.
"John made the ultimate sacrifice while protecting the ideals of our nation; while doing a job he loved and while serving with the people he loved. Although his life was tragically cut short, his spirit will live on in his family and friends, and the brave men who served by his side until his death."
Faas, a high school football quarterback and a 1998 class valedictorian at Minnehaha Academy, was determined to become a SEAL, football coach Ron Monson said. "I tried to talk him into becoming an officer," Monson said. "He is such a leader. Even at that age, he was so bright and had so much to offer and he knew that's what he was going to do. ... Being a Navy SEAL was his calling. He was inspired by it."
On Saturday, the 31-year-old chief petty officer was among 30 U.S. troops, including 22 SEALs, who were killed when their CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan's Tangi Valley, apparently by a Taliban-launched rocket-propelled grenade. Military officials confirmed Faas' death on Wednesday. Earlier this week, it was confirmed that another Minnesota native and Navy SEAL, Nicholas Spehar, of Chisago City, also was killed when the helicopter was shot down.
It was the deadliest single-day loss for U.S. forces in the decade-long war in Afghanistan. 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. None of the SEALs killed Saturday was involved in that mission.
Seven Afghan commandos and an Afghan interpreter on the helicopter also were killed in Saturday's attack.
Friends and family were rocked by the news that Faas was on board the Chinook. "Why John? He was one of the best and brightest," Monson said.
Choking back grief, Monson found it easy to paint a picture of his former player. "John was the most humble and a brilliant student," Monson said.
He was the kid who was serious and studious but gregarious and outgoing, the coach said. He earned an "almost perfect" ACT score, Monson said.
"He was the defender of the undefended," Monson said, the first to come to the aid of someone who was hurt or the first to scold a peer for being disrespectful. "He was quite a guy."
On the football field, Faas was not the most gifted player, Monson said. "But he had the drive, the desire and the stubbornness not to fail," Monson said. "John gave his all, all the time."
Monson said he last saw Faas in June, when he was back in Minneapolis visiting family and friends. Faas immediately wrapped his arms around Monson, giving him a big bear hug. "If it was somebody else, it'd be the uncomfortable long hug," said Monson, who said he always will remember Faas' smile. "He had a warm greeting and smile. ... He smiled with his eyes and his whole body and the hug. ... It was the authenticity of it all."
Monson said Faas was preparing college applications while home, but didn't know where he intended to go or what he wanted to study. He could have done anything he wanted, Monson said.
As with many of the soldiers who have fallen before him, Monson said, the public will only get a glimpse of what made Faas special.
"There's so much more to these kids that nobody's going to know because the anchor is going to move on to the next story," he said. "There aren't enough pages."
Staff writer Daarel A. Burnette II contributed to this report.
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788