They were all young men who had dreams and aspirations after combat, but put service to country first.
Five of the six Fort Lewis soldiers who died when a massive roadside bomb detonated beneath their Stryker armored vehicle have been identified. Two other soldiers were wounded in the attack, which occurred in the Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, and 29-year-old Russian freelance photographer Dmitry Chebotayev was killed.
Those identified by families: Cpl. Matthew Alexander, 21, of Gretna, Neb.; Spc. Anthony Bradshaw, 21, of El Paso, Texas; Sgt. Jason Harkins, 25, of Georgia; Spc. Joel Lewis, 28, of Puyallup; and Pfc. Michael Pursel, 19, formerly of Lacey and more recently of Hooper, Utah. They were assigned to the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team). The Department of Defense could publicly release all of the names as soon as today.
The attack occurred in Baqouba, when a convoy of four Stryker vehicles was sent to cut off men reported to be planting a bomb in a road, according to an Associated Press report. As the vehicles headed down a trash-strewn road, a blast flipped the 37,000-pound vehicle and tore out its interior.
Troops raced to the scene and were met by gunfire from a mosque across the street. The bodies of three insurgents wearing armor vests later were found in the mosque, according to the report.
Pursel, who lived in Lacey with his parents from 1998 to 2000 and arrived at Fort Lewis in December, was profiled in Tuesday’s edition of The Olympian. Following are the stories of the other soldiers who were killed in the same explosion.
Cpl. Matthew Alexander
Kara Alexander was married less than three months before learning she is a widow.
She and her husband graduated from the same high school in Gretna, a town of about 5,000 that’s southwest of Omaha. He was a percussionist in the band; she played flute. Three years after graduation, they married on Valentine’s Day while he was home on leave from Iraq.
Her husband had a heart of gold and “truly was our angel on Earth,” Kara Alexander said in a written statement. The family declined further comment Tuesday evening.
“Above all, he made it his life’s work to take care of those he loved,” she wrote. “He fought for a cause he believed in and ... died for a country he loved.”
During a concert Monday night, his high school band dedicated a song in his memory: “Glory,” a military march.
Spc. Anthony Bradshaw
Bradshaw was a gung-ho soldier, those who were close to him say.
He loved martial-arts movies, especially those starring Chuck Norris, and noted on his MySpace page that the instrument he plays is “the 240,” referring to a machine gun. Such bravado didn’t much carry into this personal life, however, friends say.
“He was just a real cool guy, a real outgoing guy,” childhood friend Mike Angerstein told the El Paso (Texas) Times, his hometown newspaper. “He never really got serious or mad about anything.”
Bradshaw’s interests included reading, listening to music and watching television.
His 21-year-old twin brother, Sam, is an Army soldier assigned to Fort Bragg, N.C. He left a message on Bradshaw’s MySpace page Tuesday, writing that his brother was an extension of him, and he didn’t know what he was going to do without him.
“Now that other half of me is gone with you,” he wrote. “You will be with me though. Until the day I leave this Earth, I will carry you with me.”
Sgt. Jason Harkins
When his former pastor called him a hero in a letter, Harkins wrote back to kindly disagree.
“We’re ordinary men called upon to do extraordinary things,” the pastor, the Rev. Alan Morris, recalled him writing.
A modest leader and gifted writer, Harkins became devoutly religious after marrying his wife, Emily, in January 2006. The couple attended a church in Lakewood and planned to start a family upon his return.
Harkins enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1998 and joined the active-duty rank in March 2003, the same month the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq. He arrived at Fort Lewis that July and deployed with 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division during its first deployment to Iraq later that year.
He was of two minds about going to Iraq a second time, said Morris, senior pastor at Concord Baptist Church in Clermont, Ga., not far from where Harkins grew up.
“He hated it because he was leaving his wife,” Morris said, “He was excited about it because he believed in the cause.”
On Thursday, Harkins’ mother, Nancy Fritchey, helped organize a local event for the National Day of Prayer, Morris said. During a 24-hour prayer, participants were asked to pray for the protection of U.S. troops deployed overseas, among other things.
Three days later, she learned her first-born son had been killed.
Spc. Joel Lewis
At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Lewis, 28, cut an imposing figure. But his mother, Gale Poindexter, described him as a “gentle giant” graced with a welcoming smile, great sense of humor and romantic side.
He enlisted in the Army in 2001. After he served for a year in Korea, the Army granted his request to transfer to Fort Lewis. He wanted to be close to his brother Justin, 26, who lives in Puyallup.
“They were very, very close,” Poindexter said from her home in Sand Springs, Okla. Lewis enjoyed snowboarding, scuba diving and playing chess with his brother.
He transferred from another unit at Fort Lewis and joined the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in Iraq in February, Poindexter said.
He lived with his brother after separating from his wife. He intended to finalize his divorce and remarry when he returned from Iraq, Poindexter said. Born in Ontario, he also was in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, she said.
He will be buried at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent.
“He was well-liked and loved,” his mother said. “It’s a great loss being so young, and we won’t see him again. It’s hard for us.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or firstname.lastname@example.org.