FORT LEWIS — On an unseasonably warm Tuesday, about 600 mourners gathered at Soldiers Field House to pay their respects to six soldiers who were killed in the deadliest week for Fort Lewis troops in Iraq. (Audio Slideshow)
The soldiers, who were assigned to the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, died May 6 when an explosion from a roadside bomb hidden in a sewer line destroyed their armored Stryker vehicle.
It was the highest death toll for Fort Lewis soldiers in a single attack since a half-dozen solders were killed Dec. 21, 2004, when a suicide bomber detonated explosives in a dining tent in Mosul. Fort Lewis has lost 108 soldiers since the war began, with close to half of them assigned to 3rd Brigade.
During the next six days, the Army post will have three more memorials for soldiers assigned to the Army post killed in separate attacks in Iraq.
Eyes moist before the service, Sgt. 1st Class Hinton Allred, a 40-year-old communications specialist assigned to 3rd Brigade’s rear detachment, said the mood around Fort Lewis is somber and reflective as he gazed at the six sets of combat boots, dog tags and helmets that served as memorials for the soldiers in front of a giant U.S. flag.
“You just got so many young men with values and with character,” he said. “When you see that caliber of men leave and it’s gone, what are you supposed to do?”
The six soldiers were eulogized as men who shared the Christian faith and rapid ascension to becoming young, battle-tested leaders. Lt. Col. Chris Cieply, 3rd Brigade’s rear detachment chaplain, described them as “patriots of a higher calling” who dedicated their lives to bettering the lives of the Iraqi people.
The commanders and soldiers who spoke at the memorial said they each had individual strengths that made them indispensable members of their platoon and one another.
“They came together and they died as a family,” said Maj. Robert Bennett, 3rd Brigade’s rear detachment commander.
The six were recalled in their eulogies and honorable and dependable:
•Sgt. Jason R. Harkins,
25, of Clarkesville, Ga., was a dependable soldier with a Southern drawl who once pulled a soldier to safety and took a bullet in his Kevlar helmet for his effort.
•Cpl. Matthew L. Alexander,
21, of Gretna, Neb., was remembered as an experienced radio operator who thrived as a team player. In high school, he never made first chair in band and wasn’t particularly good at basketball, but he never missed a practice, Cieply said.
•Staff Sgt. Vincenzo Romeo,
23, of Lodi, N.J., was remembered as the squad leader who could turn the most mundane story into an exciting yarn and could make miserable conditions bearable for his soldiers through his sense of humor and force of will.
•Sgt. Joel W. Lewis,
28, of Puyallup was recalled as the Canadian-born giant who always looked after the needs of others and, like several who died, volunteered to go to Iraq.
“He could have sat, but he chose not to,” Staff Sgt. William Rose said. “He chose to go to Iraq and serve with his brothers in arms who were already over there.”
•Cpl. Anthony M. Bradshaw,
21, of San Antonio was the machine-gunner who drew everyone to him and who planned to attend the University of Texas after being in the Army. Rose recalled how Bradshaw and his team expertly defended a Iraqi police station against suicide bombers.
•Cpl. Michael A. Pursel,
19, formerly of Lacey would let nothing stop his dream of joining the Special Forces. Rose recalled a resupply mission in which Pursel was using his night-vision goggles for the first time and kept falling down as he became accustomed to them. But he kept going, unfazed by the stumbles.
“You could see it in his eyes,” Rose said. “You knew he’d be great.”
One of the mourners was Staff Sgt. Richard Kellar, a 25-year-old squad leader for 5th Battalion, who attended the service in a wheelchair and knew several who died.
On March 14, a 1,000-pound bomb exploded near Kellar’s Stryker vehicle, the force of the blast fracturing his ankle and shoulder and nearly ripping off his nose.
Despite the recent toll — the infantry battalion has lost nine soldiers; the brigade has lost 26 — he said his infantry battalion will carry on.
“No matter what gets thrown at them, they make it a better place,” he said.
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.