Soldiers in the 864th Engineer Battalion, known as the Pacemakers, on Wednesday mourned three comrades killed in a suicide bombing Aug. 28 in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
Sgt. 1st Class Rocky H. Herrera, Sgt. Cory L. Clark and Sgt. Bryce D. Howard were eulogized at a memorial service crowded with friends, family and colleagues as natural leaders who were committed to their country and families, representing the best the Army has to offer.
"This loss to the Pacemaker family will be felt forever," said Capt. Jennifer Foxworth, the battalion's rear detachment commander, reading a letter from its commanding officer, Lt. Col. Mark Deschenes.
The combat engineers were among a group of soldiers laying the cornerstones for a new bridge in the village of Jaji when they were killed. It was the single deadliest attack for Fort Lewis soldiers in Afghanistan since the invasion began nearly six years ago.
Family members either declined or were unavailable to comment after the service.
The battalion has lost six soldiers in Afghanistan. It deployed to Iraq in March 2003 and served in Afghanistan starting in March 2005. The battalion deployed to that country a second time in March.
Each of the soldiers has been awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Deschenes wrote that the unit grieves the recent losses but remains committed to its mission. The battalion continues to construct the bridge in the soldiers' memory; it will serve a new coalition base and enable Afghans to cross a river.
"We will not falter," the commander wrote. "This loss makes our heart ache, but also makes us stronger."
Herrera, 43, a construction equipment supervisor, was all about family, others said.
A quiet demeanor and a reputation for leading from the front allowed Herrera to transform his platoon into a family, said Staff Sgt. Rory Windsor, a close friend.
Back home, he was just as devoted to his wife of 17 years, Traci, and two daughters and two sons, Windsor said.
He frequently talked of his family, and pictures were proudly displayed on his computer desktop.
"He loved the fact he recently became a grandfather," Windsor said.
Herrera enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1986 as a crane operator and joined the active-duty ranks a decade later. He was assigned to an engineer company in Germany and deployed to Bosnia. He served at Fort Irwin, Calif., and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., before transferring to the Northwest.
He joined the 585th Pipeline Company based at Fort Lewis in fall 2005 and purchased a home in Lacey.
Clark, 25, will always be remembered for his laughter, said Spc. Rebecca Mathatas, a friend.
"It would fill the room he was in and echo down the halls," she said.
His laugh complemented a contagious personality that made Clark, of Plant City, Fla., the big brother of his platoon, Mathatas said, looking after his soldiers and raising their spirits when needed.
In his letter, Deschenes characterized Clark as the glue that held his platoon together.
Clark, a construction equipment operator, enlisted in the Army in April 2001. He deployed with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team) during its first deployment to Iraq in November 2003 as a member of its engineer company. Upon his return, he transferred to the 585th Pipeline Company.
He is survived by his wife, Monica, three sons and a daughter.
Howard, 24, was a talented surveyor fellow soldiers listened to without question, said Sgt. 1st Class Tadeusz Czuprynski, one of his commanding noncommissioned officers.
"It was evident he took pride in everything he did," he said.
Like Herrera and Clark, Howard spoke often of his family.
"When he did, it was easy to see they were his world," Czuprynski said.
Howard was born in Vancouver, Wash., and enlisted in the Army in April 2001. He spent time in Korea after finishing basic training, then transferred to the 864th Engineer Battalion in August 2003. He deployed with the unit both times to Afghanistan.
Howard, who was assigned to the Headquarters Support Company, is survived by his wife, Amber, and two sons.
At the memorial service, Czuprynski read a poem written by Howard's wife about the death of her husband.
"Your heart can be empty because you can no longer see him, but it can be full of the love that you shared," it read.
Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or email@example.com.