Airman from Bakersfield killed in helicopter crash

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) Mark Smith knew what he wanted to do immediately after graduating from Bakersfield's Centennial High School in July 2000.

He joined the Air Force. And he married his high school sweetheart Jessica, who graduated from Bakersfield High School. The pair had two daughters, Veronica and Gabriela.

With family in tow, Smith was stationed at numerous places across the country. And, then in October 2011, he was reassigned to Okinawa, Japan.

"I was like, your kidding! You're killing me here," said Jesse Aranda, uncle to Jessica.

During his 13 years of service, the 30-year-old Smith became a technical sergeant assigned to the 33rd Rescue Squadron. He advanced as a structural maintenance specialist before entering flight engineer upgrade training in 2008.

Smith was killed Aug. 5 when the HH 60G Pave Hawk helicopter in which he was flying went down during a training mission in the Central Training Area in Okinawa. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

He was deployed twice to Afghanistan with the 33rd Rescue Squadron, where he participated in numerous missions to save lives of service members on the ground. During a daring rescue, Smith and his colleagues came under fire by rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-guns. A combat photographer who was nearby in an overwatch position snapped a photo of the operation, and the image went viral in the rescue community.

Smith was rock solid with his hoist in the rescue of a commando.

"But he never mentioned the significance of the photo. He never said, 'That's me in the photo,'" said Aranda.

That was Smith's demeanor, said the uncle.

"He was not a man to boast," said Aranda.

Smith's body is now at Dover Air Force base in Delaware. It is expected to arrive in Bakersfield later in the week. Funeral services are still pending.