WASHINGTON – Karina Lau was hoping to surprise her family in California with a two-week furlough from Iraq. Ernest Bucklew was headed home for his mother's funeral in Pennsylvania.
Around the nation, families of the 16 U.S. soldiers killed in a weekend helicopter attack in Iraq (search) had been looking forward to a few precious hours with their loved ones. Instead, the families were grieving Monday.
Many of the victims had been headed home for R&R or emergency leave when they were killed.
"They told us he was on his way home and before they could get out of there, they blew up the plane he was on," said Rose Ella Wilson, the 62-year-old grandmother of Staff Sgt. Joe Wilson, 30, of Crystal Springs, Miss. "He had a two-week leave and now he's gone."
Wilson was one of six soldiers from Fort Sill (search), Okla., who were killed in the attack. He leaves a wife and 1-year-old daughter.
Bucklew, 33, had been expected to stop at his Fort Carson (search), Colo., home before traveling to the funeral. His wife, Barbara, wept as she spoke of breaking the news to the couple's two children, 8-year-old Joshua and 4-year-old Justin.
"My oldest one is just a little numb," she said at the Army post near Colorado Springs, shrouded in fog and a cold rain. "He understands his nana and father passed away, but he hasn't talked about it. The youngest one just doesn't understand. He doesn't understand the concept of death right now."
The military did not immediately identify all the victims of the single deadliest attack for U.S. troops since the war began in March. The CH-47 Chinook helicopter was taking soldiers to the U.S. base at Baghdad International Airport on Sunday so they could fly out for two weeks' leave. The attack also left 20 soldiers wounded.
Among the dead was helicopter pilot, 30-year-old 1st Lt. Brian Slavenas of Genoa, Ill. Military service was a natural fit for the 6-foot-5 former Army paratrooper who was serving in the Illinois National Guard.
"I just feel like the whole world was cheated because he was just the wrong person for the good of the world to be killed," said his brother Marcus Slavenas, who served in Operation Desert Storm.
Ronald Slavenas said his son was a "gentle giant" who did not like violence. He said Brian Slavenas loved checking out the sights as he flew dignitaries, soldiers, prisoners and equipment around Iraq.
"He described to me seeing all of those places from the air, pointing out archaeological sites like Babylon," Ronald Slavenas said. "From the air, for him, it was like sightseeing."
Lau, a 20-year-old Army private trained at Fort Hood, Texas, dreamed of returning to school and someday setting up her own music shop, relatives said. She was planning to visit family in Livingston, Calif.
"She had just e-mailed my wife just two hours before she got on the helicopter," said Noel Rivera, Lau's brother-in-law.
The attack was an especially tragic blow at Fort Carson, which has sent 12,000 troops to Iraq -- its largest deployment since World War II. In all, 25 soldiers from the post have died in Iraq -- four of them in Sunday's crash.
"When my husband gets here, I just want to hug and kiss him and never let him go," said Army wife Amy Leyenbecker, who was at the Bucklew home trying to provide comfort.
Bucklew's family was planning two funerals -- one for him and another for his mother, who died Friday of a burst aneurysm at age 57.
"They say there's a reason for everything, but I just can't find a reason for this," said Bucklew's uncle, Jack Smith of Point Marion, Pa. "This country shouldn't be starting wars, we should be defending ourselves and others. I think all these boys should be sent home."
Smith said family members were stunned at the loss of Bucklew as he was on his way home.
"I think it was more of a shock when you go through the Red Cross and he writes you that he's coming home and then a bunch of damn cowards shoot him down," he said.
"His last words were, 'I'm coming home,"' Smith added. "He said, 'I'm not worried because my mom's up there watching over me."'
Bucklew, the son of a coal miner, grew up in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and joined the National Guard. He met his wife in 1991, when both were in the Army Reserves.
She said once she saw the 5-foot-3 Bucklew, with his brown eyes and brown hair, she knew she wanted to spend her life with him. "Even on your worst day, he knew how to make you laugh," she said. "That had to be his best quality."
Ernie, as he was known, had been in the Army since 1999. In one of the last e-mails sent to his wife, he reminisced about times with his mother, Mary, when he was a child.
"He said he couldn't sleep. He was thinking about her," Barbara Bucklew said. "He couldn't wait to be home."
Another Fort Sill victim, Sgt. Ross Pennanen, was inspired to join the Army by his father, Richard, an Air Force veteran, family members said.
"He had listened to his dad talk about how much he had gained from being in the military," said his stepmother, Linda Pennanen of Oklahoma City.
"He really loved it," she said. "Once he knew he wanted to go in the military, he worked at it."