Maj. Steve Reich
A former Team USA baseball player from "a red, white and blue family" is among 16 U.S. soldiers flying on a U.S. special forces helicopter that crashed in Afghanistan, family friends and a town official said Thursday.
Maj. Steve Reich, 34, was a star pitcher in high school and for the U.S. Military Academy's baseball team. He carried the American flag while representing Team USA in 1993 at the World University games and pitched briefly in the minor leagues before being recalled to active military duty.
The Army notified the family Wednesday that Reich was on the helicopter, family spokesman Gary Fitzherbert said.
"My heart is broken," he said Thursday.
All 16 U.S. service members were killed and their bodies recovered, the U.S. military said Thursday. Militants are believed to have shot down the MH-47 helicopter Tuesday as it was bringing in reinforcements for a battle with suspected al-Qaida fighters. Military officials had initially said 17 U.S. service members were aboard the helicopter. Two officials said a 17th person was listed on the helicopter's manifest, but it is now believed that person did not board the flight.
Word of Reich's death spread quickly in the town of 3,600.
"The whole town is stunned," Washington First Selectman Richard Sears said. "Steve was always able to do everything he tried. People imagined any corner or situation he got himself into he would come out of it."
Reich pitched the championship game for his high school in 1987 before starring at the U.S. Military Academy.
"He was one of the best to ever come through here," said Bob Beretta, a spokesman for the Army baseball team. "When we say someone here is the best since, it's always the best since Steve Reich."
He was a member of Team USA in 1993, making 17 appearances on a team that played in Italy, Nicaragua and Cuba and the World University Games. He later signed with the Baltimore Orioles system, but pitched in only two games in 1996 before the military recalled him to active duty.
"You see this big huge smile of pride," Fitzherbert said, referring to Reich carrying the flag for Team USA.
"That's how we all remember him."
Reich was known for his fastball and command, rarely walking a batter. He signed with the Orioles in 1996 after completing two years of a four-year military commitment, Orioles public relations director Bill Stetka said. He pitched two games in the low minor leagues before being recalled by the Army.
Town resident Chris Ayer, 15, still has a USA Team card that Reich autographed for him a decade ago.
"I thought he was going to be huge," Ayer said.
Reich had come to the Ayer home to deliver cookies or some other treat to Ayer's father, who had coached his sister's baseball team, said Cheryl Ayer, Chris' mother.
"It was their way of saying thank you," she said.
Reich, who was married in March, was stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., and was on his fourth tour of duty.
This past Christmas was his first time home for the holiday since the Sept. 11 attacks, Sears said.
"The family had a wonderful reunion," Sears said.
At the family home, Sears said he saw wedding and military photos of Reich. His father, Ray, a teacher at The Gunnery prep school, took a model of the helicopter that crashed off the book shelf and dusted it off.
Reich's family have been visible volunteers in town. His father organizes the town's large fireworks show, which is scheduled for Monday.
"He's been Mr. Fireworks," Sears said. "This is a red, white and blue family."
Town officials were busy Thursday planning tributes, which will include a prayer service Sunday night at the Congregational Church.
Reich rose to the rank of major and for the past six months was a company commander in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, a unit known as "The Nightstalkers."
Reich learned to pilot three models of Army helicopters, including the MH-47, friends said. He met his wife, Jill, while stationed in Georgia, Fitzherbert said.
"Everybody that met her said that Steve has found the love of his life," Fitzherbert said.