Six Fort Lewis soldiers killed in Sunday blast

Pfc. Michael Pursel, a former Lacey resident, had just settled at Fort Lewis when officials asked for volunteers to serve in Iraq. An infantry battalion had taken heavy casualties, and the unit needed replacements.

“Michael was one of the first ones to raise his hand to go,” his mother, Terry Dutcher, said Monday.

Pursel, who turned 19 on April 14, was one of six Fort Lewis soldiers killed Sunday when a bomb destroyed their vehicle in the restive Diyala Province.

Pursel had been in Iraq a little more than a month.

The soldiers were assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, a Stryker brigade in its second tour to Iraq, the Army post confirmed.

Two other soldiers were wounded, and a Russian photographer was killed in the attack.

It was the deadliest attack on a Stryker since the new armored vehicles entered service in Iraq 31/2 years ago, The News Tribune reported.

The fast, eight-wheeled armored troop carrier that is the mainstay of the Fort Lewis infantry brigades has generally proven capable of protecting soldiers and crews inside from devastating explosions. But there have been catastrophic hits. The worst before Sunday came in April 2005, when two Fort Lewis soldiers and two from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Collins, Colo., were killed in a bombing on their Stryker near Tal Afar.

And only once before have so many Fort Lewis soldiers died in a single attack since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Six soldiers assigned to the Army post died during the suicide bombing of a mess tent near the Mosul airport in December 2004, an attack that killed 22.

With the deaths, the number of U.S. service members assigned to Fort Lewis who have died in Iraq now stands at 105. A memorial service for the six soldiers is tentatively scheduled for May 15.

In addition, more soldiers assigned to the brigade have died during its second deployment than its first. Twenty soldiers were killed during its yearlong tour in 2004; 25 soldiers have been killed during the second deployment. The unit is expected back in October.

Dutcher, a captain in the Air Force Reserve who lives in Utah, said her son died living his dream.

“We’re proud of Michael, and Michael was doing what he always wanted to do,” she said. “In light of how it turned out, I know Michael was happy. I just take peace in that right now.”

The Pentagon is expected to release the identities of all six soldiers this week. Relatives of other soldiers told reporters the Army notified them Sunday that they had been killed. They are:

Sgt. Jason R. Harkins,

Spc. Joel Lewis,

Spc. Anthony Bradshaw,

Lewis’ mother, Gale Poindexter, told The News Tribune her son was born in Canada but moved to Oklahoma about 13 years ago. He spent a year in South Korea with the Army before moving to Fort Lewis.

The family is planning burial at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, she said.

Pursel was born in Germany into a military family and had dreamed of serving in the Army since age 2. His mother recalled how he loved wearing his fatigues and his father’s drill sergeant hat.

Pursel moved to Lacey in 1998, when his father was assigned to Fort Lewis. Pursel attended Christian Life Church and its academy, Christian Life School. His mother volunteered at the school.

There, he met Ollie Garcia, a retired command sergeant major who had served as the top noncommissioned officer for the 1st Special Forces Group at Fort Lewis before retiring in 1994. Garcia served as the school principal from 1996 to 2001.

Pursel was in awe of Garcia’s military career, although the veteran advised him it was a dangerous path.

“He kind of looked up to me as a role model,” Garcia said.

Pursel’s family moved to Utah in 2000, when his mother accepted a new assignment after transferring from the Army Reserve to Air Force Reserve. His parents have since divorced.

The summer before his senior year, Pursel attended basic training as a combat engineer under the Army’s delayed entry program. Because he wanted to join the elite Special Forces, he had to complete basic training in infantry school, which he did after graduating from high school last summer.

“He didn’t care,” Dutcher said. “They said, ‘You have to do it.’ He said, ‘No problem. I’ll do it again.’ ”

After his training, the Army accepted his request for assignment to Fort Lewis. He was assigned to the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the Army post’s newest Stryker brigade that activated Friday. He arrived there in December and lived on post.

The move allowed him to reunite with his adopted family. Christian Life Church’s senior pastor, Steve Bradley, had remained in touch with the Pursels since their move. Pursel and Bradley’s 20-year-old daughter, Sarah, were close friends.

He again attended the church and, in February, committed himself to God, Bradley said.

Soon after, Pursel volunteered to join the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Division, which moved to the province northwest of Baghdad recently to quell a violent insurgency. The battalion is part of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He left for Iraq on March 26.

Bradley said Pursel’s faith helped him in Iraq.

“Now that I’m Christian, I’m at peace over here,” the soldier wrote to him, “and I know God is here with me no matter what happens.”

On Saturday, Pursel sent a message to his mother that he had gotten back from a seven-day mission that nabbed 13 “bad guys.” That night, Pursel sent a message to Sarah Bradley that he was planning to send her a package with items he had picked up in Iraq.

On Sunday afternoon, hours after the bomb attack, Dutcher, who had returned from a five-month deployment to Iraq in January, received a knock at her door.

“Once I saw them at the door, I knew,” she said.

Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or at The News Tribune contributed to this report.