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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 30, 2006

Man killed in Kunia Road crash was combat vet

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Army Staff Sgt. Noel Rao, shown here preparing to fly to Pakistan during relief efforts last October, was found Monday still strapped inside his car after a crash on Kunia Road. He was declared dead at the scene.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Army Staff Sgt. Noel Rao, an immigrant from India who became a U.S. citizen while serving in Afghanistan, talked of becoming a warrant officer and flying helicopters.

The 31-year-old squad leader exuded a quiet confidence; his quick wit made him popular with fellow members of his CH-47 Chinook maintenance platoon.

With two combat deployments to Afghanistan, an earthquake relief mission to Pakistan late last year, and a planned deployment to Iraq by his unit this summer, Rao was getting plenty of experience.

Early Monday, the father of two young children was killed when his 1998 Ford Escort left Kunia Road, sheared off a utility pole, careened down an embankment and landed on its roof.

A power failure occurred at 2:13 a.m., and HECO crews reached the scene at about 4 a.m. Police said Rao, the only person in the car, was found with his seat belt still on, and was declared dead at the scene.

A memorial service for Rao will be held tomorrow at the Wheeler Army Airfield chapel.

The Honolulu medical examiner's office said Rao died from blunt force injuries to his chest and abdomen. Toxicology results are due by the end of the week. Police previously said speed was a factor in the crash.

Rao was with Company D, 3rd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, officials said. Unit members were meeting with his wife yesterday. Rao was the father of children ages 6 and 3.

Part of what made Rao remarkable was his embrace of his adopted country and adaptation to it. He grew up in Madras in southern India and moved to the United States when he was 26. He joined the Army in 2001.

Rao volunteered for the Chinook relief mission to Pakistan in October, saying that after spending much of his life in that part of the world, he knew some of the difficulties that would be faced, and he wanted to help.

The Waipahu man deployed to Afghanistan in 2002 for eight months, and became a U.S. citizen during that time. He left again for Afghanistan in 2004, this time for a year with the 25th Infantry Division.

The upcoming Iraq deployment already had been scheduled by the time he volunteered for the Pakistan mission.

"That's today's Army, that's all I can say," Rao said while in Afghanistan preparing for a helicopter flight to Pakistan. "I've gotten OK breaks in between. I'm not going to lie and say it's been easy. The biggest sacrifice has been made by my wife and kids."

For the 25th Infantry Division, it was the loss of a fellow soldier and a reminder that soldiers face danger even outside of combat.

Part of Schofield Barracks' safety campaign is to stress accident prevention, including while driving. Signs around base mark the number of days since the last accidental fatality.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, the commanding general of the 25th Division, had noted March 24 in the base newspaper that the weekend of March 3 marked a 100-day nonfatality milestone.

The entire division, which is sending 7,000 soldiers to Iraq in late summer, received a training day "holiday," and a continuing word of caution.

"As we continue to prepare for deployment, our schedules will be inundated with competing priorities and stressors," Mixon said in his message to the troops. "I stress to each of you to take a step back and evaluate your actions and their potential ramifications, daily. Determine whether the activity being performed is a potentially hazardous task or not especially routine activities like driving to and from work and respond accordingly."

Since October of last year, 70 percent of accidental deaths have occurred behind the wheel in privately owned or Army tactical vehicles, Mixon said. A total of 111 soldiers were killed Armywide in driving accidents.

Mixon cautioned that at the height of the rainy season, soldiers have to continue to exercise caution while driving, and that troops have to refrain from cell-phone use behind the wheel.

Yesterday, the division's Web site fatality report read: "2 day(s) since last fatal accident."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.