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A Lake County man was among 11 people killed Thursday when an International Security Assistance Force helicopter crashed in Afghanistan.

The family of Richard Essex, 23, was struggling Friday to come to terms with the death of the U.S. Army gunner on the downed helicopter.

"It's just hard to think he's gone," said his sister, Jennifer Williamson. "He was such a big joker; when my mom called, I was almost waiting for him to pop around the corner and say &‘gotcha.'"

Essex's parents, Marion and Brett Hopkins, of Kelseyville, will fly to Delaware early Saturday to meet the plane that is bringing home his body, Williamson said. Although family members said they had been contacted by the military, the Pentagon Friday afternoon refused to confirm the identities of those who died when the helicopter went down.

Essex will be cremated, as he wished, she said. The family plans initially to hold a private service. A public military service will be held at 11 a.m., Sept. 1 at Kelseyville High School, said Principal Matt Cockerton.

"He was a nice kid. A real positive kid," said an emotional Cockerton. "He was back here last year doing a recruiting assignment. He was very proud of what he'd accomplished."

Essex was born in Blythe but moved to Lake County when he was just 3 months old, Williamson said. He attended Kelseyville High School, where he played football but was as much or more interested in music and poetry.

He played guitar and loved all types of music, Williamson said. But he primarily was a poet, having published two books of autobiographical poetry.

"He just loved writing poems," his sister said.

Among the belongings his parents will be retrieving from the military are notebooks filled with poems he wrote in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Essex enlisted the Army within days of graduating from high school in 2008. He'd signed up when he was a junior and planned to make it a career, Williamson said.

"Ever since he could walk or talk, he's always been wanting to go into the service," Williamson said. "Our whole family has always been in the service," she explained.

"My son has always known what he wanted to do," Marion Hopkins said. He was determined from the day he was born, arriving early in the parking lot of the hospital, delivered by a nurse smoking a cigarette, she said.

Essex was born fearless and remained so throughout his life, she said.

Williamson recalled that hen he was eight years old his brother accidentally hooked him in the eye socket with a fishing lure.

He cried for about 20 minutes then began to fiddle with the lure, trying to figure it out. By the time he got to the hospital, he was in good spirits and joking around, blinking his eye to make the rubber strings on the bass lure dance when the nurses walked into the room.

He wouldn't let anyone touch him until he had a mirror so he could watch, Williamson said.

Essex sought thrills and thrived on adrenalin rushes, his sister said. So it was natural that he seek the dangerous job of being a helicopter gunner.

Essex served in Iraq for a year before signing up for a second tour in Afghanistan, Williamson said.

He did so because he wanted to make the world safe for his family and friends, but he also wanted the war to be over, Williamson said. He was scheduled to return from Afghanistan in November.

Essex was a charming and loving man whose memory will remain alive in the hearts and minds of his family and many friends, Williamson said.

"I'm not going to say goodbye," she said.