LITTLEROCK - "A cowboy with a biker's heart" is how Bill VanBuskirk describes his friend Casey Casavant.
The Shelton man was generous, big-hearted and always smiling, friends said Saturday at a memorial for Casavant, a civilian contractor killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq last month.
About 75 friends, many of whom met Casavant through his favorite pastime - penning - gathered Saturday at the Flying M Stables near Littlerock for a potluck.
"We're going to celebrate the cowboy in him," said Casavant's fiancee, Kim Wegner.
Casavant, 36, was employed by Blackwater USA, a private security firm that operates in Iraq. He was assigned to Baghdad to protect diplomats on the ground and in the air, Wegner said.
Casavant was one of four people who died when the helicopter they were in was shot down Jan. 23, she said.
Twenty-three Marines and soldiers have died in helicopter crashes in Iraq since Jan. 20, and most are thought to have been shot down. Casavant's death highlights the fact that contractors, like soldiers, encounter dangerous situations. Iraq Coalition Casualties reports that 154 contract workers have died since April 2003. Wegner, of Shelton, met her fiance through the Westside Team Penning Club, where Casavant had many friends. Penning is an equestrian sport that involves driving cattle into pens.
Wegner said the pair connected right away but didn't begin dating until he was out of the military in 2004. Casavant was an Army Ranger based out of Fort Lewis for six years; he had served in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2005, he approached Wagner and said he wanted to return to Iraq as a civilian contractor. She said he thought he could make a difference in Iraq.
"I told him if it was really what he believed he wanted to do, I would stand there beside him," she said.
At the memorial, several dozen members of the Patriot Guard - a national group of motorcycle riders and veterans who attend military funerals - lined the entrance to the stables, carrying U.S. flags.
Friends hugged Wegner and offered support. They gathered around a campfire, swapping stories about Casavant.
Casavant grew up participating in rodeos in Montana, where his family lives and where he was buried.
Kenny and Carolyn Aduddell said Casavant was the type to help out "behind the scenes." For example, he donated $1,500 worth of trophies to a penning event in December.
When he wasn't penning, he was riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, VanBuskirk said. The two would ride to Portland just for a cup of coffee or ride to Port Townsend in pouring rain, he said.
"When he was home, we were riding. It didn't matter what the weather was like," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Diane Huber covers the city of Lacey and its urban growth area for The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-357-0204 or firstname.lastname@example.org.