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Marine pilot with Minnesota roots killed in jet crash in Iraq
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Kelly Hinz graduated from St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights in 1993 and then the University of St. Thomas. (Photo courtesy of St. Thomas Academy)
Friends are remembering the latest Minnesota soldier killed in Iraq as a a shining star. Kelly Hinz, 30, a Marine Corps pilot, was killed Monday in a plane crash over south-central Iraq. Hinz grew up in Woodbury.

St. Paul, Minn. — Like so many of the young people who've been killed in Iraq, Kelly Hinz is being remembered as a leader who was involved in a number of different activities, who was always smiling, and who was well-liked and well-respected.

Hinz leaves behind his wife, Molly, an infant daughter, his mother, Patricia, and three younger brothers. Hinz was based at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego. His brother, Ben, is also an F/A-18 pilot based there, the family said. Hinz's mother lives in Woodbury.

At St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, where Kelly graduated from high school in 1993, the gigantic flag flies at half staff.

"It's somber around here today," says Jack Zahr, the academy's director of athletics and activities, who knew Hinz well.

Kelly was kind of the shining star of their family. When you met Kelly and got to know him, you automatically knew that.
- Family friend Bill Miley

"Even though a number of the students never knew him, they realize that a St. Thomas Academy graduate was killed serving his country," says Zahr. "They're very sad and they're very respectful of Kelly, and anxious to know a little bit about him."

Zahr remembers a happy and motivated young man, who competed on, and then helped coach, the alpine ski team. Zahr says Hinz also wrote for the school newspaper, volunteered as a youth minister and delivered Meals On Wheels.

"He would work hard towards his goals, and he really achieved all of his goals because he worked so hard at it," says Zahr. "Always had a smile on his face. I can't ever remember seeing him without a smile on his face when he was a student. He was liked by everybody -- teachers and his classmates. Everyone had a great deal of respect for Kelly."

Hinz attended the University of Colorado at Boulder from 1993-94 as a mechanical engineering major, the school said. He went to the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, in 1995 and earned a degree in business administration and entrepreneurship in 1997.

Zahr says Hinz decided to follow in his father's footsteps and become a pilot, while he attended the University of St. Thomas. He entered the military in July 1996 and joined his current unit on Sept. 3, 2003. A love of aviation ran in the Hinz family.

Hinz's father, Donald, died in May 2004 when a vintage fighter plane he was piloting crash-landed during an air show in Wisconsin.

Donald Hinz, a retired naval and commercial pilot who was 60 when he died, had devoted his retirement to restoring the P-51C Mustang fighter. The restoration is part of the Red Tail Project, an effort to honor the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first black military pilots. The entire family, including Kelly Hinz, was involved in the program.

It's unclear exactly what caused the crash over Iraq that killed Kelly Hinz. The Associated Press reports that Hinz and another Marine flying separate F/A-18 Hornet jets collided over Iraq. The planes had launched from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Initial reports suggest that a sandstorm and lightning may have led to the midair collision.

"This is a very difficult loss," says Bill Miley, a family friend. "Kelly was kind of their shining star of their family. When you met Kelly and got to know him, you automatically knew that. Kelly will be greatly missed by them and it's very, very hard."

Jack Zahr from St. Thomas Academy says school officials heard on Tuesday that Hinz's plane had crashed, and were told on Wednesday his body had been recovered.

"Kelly was a very modest person. He died serving his country. He was doing what he believed was right and we're all very proud of him," says Zahr.

Hinz is the first graduate of St. Thomas Academy to die in active duty since the Vietnam War, when four alumni were killed.

St. Thomas students prayed for Hinz and his family at their Thursday morning formation. On Friday, the school's annual alumni review will be dedicated to the fallen Marine.

Kelly Hinz is the 20th Minnesota soldier killed in the Iraqi war since July 2003.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)