Sherry Wyatt sobbed Tuesday at a Joint Base Lewis-McChord memorial that seemed to pull her heart in two directions.
She felt devastated remembering her son, Spc. Sterling Wyatt, killed in Afghanistan six months ago while serving with a Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade.
Yet her heart swelled as she felt love from the soldiers who knew her son. They rallied to her last summer, and they stayed close as the months wore on.
“I don’t have only one son,” she said. “I have 80.”
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Wyatt traveled to Lewis-McChord this week to take part in two events. They marked the end of a yearlong mission in southern Afghanistan for her son’s unit, Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
In one ceremony, the 3rd Brigade uncased its flags, formally signaling the completion of its deployment and the beginning of another transition period at home.
In the second, the brigade honored 16 soldiers who gave their lives in Afghanistan. Their names were engraved in a granite memorial that recognizes sacrifices from each of the brigade’s four deployments since 2003, three of those tours in Iraq.
All told, the brigade has lost 93 soldiers in the two wars.
Tuesday’s events blended pride in the troops’ accomplishments with sadness for soldiers who did not return to loved ones.
“We always carry the memories of their sacrifice, and that is our challenge,” brigade commander Col. Charles Webster said.
Both events brought together wounded soldiers who had not seen the men and women in their units since they suffered injuries that ended their tours early.
Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Montera, a double amputee, joked about getting in shape while he does rehabilitation therapy at Navy Medical Center San Diego.
“I was dead on arrival when I got to (a military hospital in) Germany,” remembered Montera, 33. “I survived. The doctors attributed it to the shape I was in. I attribute it to a higher power.”
He wheeled himself back into the Stryker formation on Lewis-McChord’s main parade ground, rejoining the unit he left 11 months ago when a Taliban mortar and a series of explosions took his legs in Kandahar province.
Andrew and Laura Johnson watched their children make a pencil-on-paper rubbing of their brother’s name, freshly etched into the memorial.
Lt. David Johnson was the brigade’s first casualty on this deployment. He once called his assignment in Kandahar province an “infantry leader’s dream.” He was killed Jan. 25, 2012.
A year ago, Andrew and Laura Johnson opened their hearts at a memorial ceremony for their son, thanking soldiers who paid their respects.
Today, they say they can cope with the loss a little better. They appreciated the soldiers who joined them at their home in Wisconsin for the anniversary of their son’s death, and the ones who wanted to spend time with them this week away from the formal events.
“You live for those moments because they’re showing they’re remembering him,” Laura Johnson said.
The 3rd Brigade handled a fast-moving mission across two provinces in southern Afghanistan as it took on more territory because of the drawdown of Western forces. Soldiers spent from nine to 12 months in the country.At its peak, the brigade had about 4,000 soldiers teamed with about 3,000 more NATO troops spread across a rugged, mountainous expanse the size of West Virginia.
Webster told the soldiers they helped create “irreversible momentum” to bolster Afghan forces as they take the lead in securing their country. He noted that more Afghan civilians were able to enroll in schools during the brigade’s time in the country, and that Afghan forces showed increasing capacity on the battlefield.
“You have given the people of Afghanistan what the Taliban never could, and that is hope,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza of the 7th Infantry Division.
Some soldiers suffered life-changing wounds, and their presence Tuesday helped bring closure, said Lt. Col. Steven Soika, commander of the brigade’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.
Montera shared a warm embrace with Sherry Wyatt on the parade ground. Their eyes said more than they could express with words.
“It is so heartwarming,” Wyatt said, “and it is so heartbreaking.”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646