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Missouri soldier killed in helicopter crash honored, mourned at St. Louis County funeral

A folded flag sits on a casket during ceremonial funeral training at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Feb. 22, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Sadie Colbert/Released)

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Zachary Esparza was known for making and keeping friends everywhere he went, from Egypt to Hawaii.

On Monday morning, those friends showed up in droves to Crosspoint Church in south St. Louis County to honor the 36-year-old soldier and St. Louis native who was killed last month in a helicopter crash during a military training exercise in Kentucky.

“I always wondered if Zac actually knew all of his Facebook friends. And after these last few weeks — yes, he did,” his younger sister Rebecca Esparza said during Monday’s service. “It really is beautiful to see all of you come out today, and the last few weeks, to celebrate Zac’s life with our family.”

Seven other soldiers were killed in the March 29 crash, including Chief Warrant Officer 2 Rusten Smith, a native of Phelps County, Missouri. Army investigators are working to determine the cause, The Associated Press reported. The helicopters had a device on board that records the performance of aircraft in flight and analyzes crashes.

Speakers during Monday’s service, attended by more than 100 people, said Esparza taught them lessons simply by living his own life, whether it was to laugh often — including at oneself — to act honorably and to be the glue that holds people together.

Lt. Col. Tyler Espinoza, commander of 6th Battalion 101st Aviation Regiment, said he was there first and foremost as Esparza’s friend. He described Esparza as a passionate man who loved aviation, so much so he bought his own plane.

But his passion wasn’t just for flying, Espinoza said.

“When he knew what he wanted, he could obsess,” he said. “Maybe a quick cross-country flight just to get a slice from Imo’s or his love affair with Jimmy John’s, which led to his pursuit of purchasing every possible sandwich on the menu.”

Esparza’s friend Priscilla Portman said she met the soldier in flight school and they kept in touch ever since. On Monday, she wore a brightly colored shirt with pictures of her dog on it — a dog she said Esparza helped name Jerry in honor of the title character of their favorite show, “Seinfeld.”

“Zac chose my outfit today,” she said, which was met with chuckles throughout the church.

Portman said that while it’s true Esparza lit up a room, he did much more than that.

“He has this other ability … when somebody tells a story about Zac, they light up — that’s what he does,” Portman said.

Esparza grew up in St. Louis and graduated from Bayless High School in 2005, according to his obituary. After high school, he attended Southeast Missouri State University and then enlisted in the Army in 2010 while in Jackson, Missouri.

Michael Esparza said losing his older brother means he lost his role model who led by example.

“My brother was many things, but mostly he was irreplaceable,” Michael Esparza said.

Esparza was laid to rest at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis following the service.


(c) 2023 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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