Sara Knutson Cullen was as comfortable in a dress and stiletto heels as she was smoking cigars and flying Black Hawk helicopters in Afghanistan — a driven and level-headed 27-year-old whose dreams stretched far beyond her roots in Carroll County, family and friends said Sunday.
Cullen, a captain in the U.S. Army, died along with four other Army members in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan last Monday, the Department of Defense said. She is the first Marylander killed in Afghanistan this year.
Friends and family of the Eldersburg native said Cullen died doing something she loved, that she was drawn to in spite of — or perhaps because of — the challenges and the risks.
"She was always looking for the next adventure, the next challenge, the next task to being a better person," said Katie Owens, her best friend.
NATO reported the crash of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter last week. Initial reports indicated there was no enemy activity in the area at the time, the coalition said. The incident remains under investigation, the Pentagon said Saturday.
According to the U.S. Military Academy alumni website west-point.org, Cullen served previously at Fort Wainwright in Alaska and deployed on a humanitarian mission to Pakistan. The website said the helicopter crash occurred during a training mission in heavy rain.
Cullen, a 2003 graduate of Liberty High School and a 2007 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, kept a tight-knit circle of girlfriends who met in the fourth grade at Freedom Elementary School in Sykesville. As their lives diverged, the women could still gather around Owens' mother's kitchen table and talk for hours. Cullen rarely talked about her job, friends said, and instead the group chatted about lighter topics, like dating.
"She was your words of wisdom," Owens said. "Plenty of times, I just needed to talk to her because she put things in perspective."
In November, Cullen married Chris Cullen, a former Black Hawk pilot whom she met while stationed in Alaska a few years ago. The ceremony and reception were held in downtown Baltimore, and their loved ones danced all evening.
Cullen's mother, Lynn Knutson, said that at the point when the wedding DJ was supposed to announce the last dance, the couple asked him to instead put on "God Bless America," which the wedding-goers belted out at the top of their lungs.
"Sara didn't just settle down for anybody," Owens said. "They were happy."
Knutson described her daughter as a fun-loving woman with a beautiful singing voice and a contagious laugh. Cullen loved fashion, so her announcement that she wanted to go into the military came as a surprise, Knutson said.
"We were like, 'Do you know you'll have to wear a uniform?'" Knutson recalled.
Knutson and Cullen's friends said that kind of contradiction was a key part of her personality. Cullen's interests were diverse: camping and the outdoors, getting dressed up to go dancing all night, and long conversations. To spur debate, her mother said, she would take the opposite position as the rest of the class on college term papers.
Cullen had recently begun to talk to her mother and friends about possibly applying to law school, and her mother mailed her an LSAT manual.
"She wanted to do something big with her life," said Lindsay Podobnik Holbig, a close childhood friend. "She didn't let other people hold her back or stop her."
At one point when Cullen was stationed in Alaska, her parents visited. Knutson said Cullen showed them a machine that simulated the experience of flying a Black Hawk.
"It's probably the most difficult thing she could learn to do," Knutson said, describing the physical dexterity and years of study required to fly the helicopters.
Cullen and her husband bought a house in Georgia, not far from where her parents chose to retire in South Carolina, before she was deployed in January. Chris Cullen took a job with a military contractor in Afghanistan shortly after her deployment began. The couple would meet on weekends, or in the morning for coffee.
Cullen was one of two service academy graduates from Maryland killed in unrelated air crashes Monday.
Navy Lt. j.g. Valerie Cappelaere Delaney, 26, a 2009 Naval Academy graduate from Ellicott City, died when the EA-6B Prowler jet she was piloting crashed during training near Spokane, Wash.
In Afghanistan, Cullen was killed along with Staff Sgt. Steven P. Blass, 27, of Estherville, Iowa; Chief Warrant Officer Bryan J. Henderson, 27, of Franklin, La.; Staff Sgt. Marc A. Scialdo, 31, of Naples, Fla.; and Spec. Zachary L. Shannon, 21, of Dunedin, Fla. All were assigned to elements of the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia.
The crash and the deaths of two special operations troops shot by an Afghan policeman made Monday the deadliest day for U.S. troops in Afghanistan this year, accounting for half the 14 troops killed in 2013.
Holbig, one of several in Cullen's close circle of friends, said that when they gather again around the kitchen table without her, it wouldn't be the same.
"She was her own person," Holbig said. "What she did at 27 years old, we would say, in our lifetime we would never achieve the things she did."
Baltimore Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.