Hundreds packed the chapel: Generals and privates, officers and enlisted, relatives and fellow soldiers.
They came to pay their respects to three Fort Lewis soldiers killed on a remote battlefield in southeastern Afghanistan.
Staff Sgt. Edward B. Smith, Sgt. Titus R. Reynolds and Spc. Joseph V. White of 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division died when a massive bomb ripped through their Stryker outside Omar Zai on Sept. 24. Their memorial ceremony Wednesday at Fort Lewis was a teary-eyed collection of eulogies and military honors.
“We honor them for their loyalty, duty, selfless service and personal courage,” chaplain Capt. Ronaldo Silva said. “They have paid the ultimate sacrifice so that we and our children can continue our freedom and our way of life. The loss of our three brothers left their friends, families and all of us with aching hearts.”
The soldiers were about 45 minutes into a 15-hour mission in which they were going to patrol on foot, including stops to talk to village elders, and then watch for Taliban activity after night fall, said Pfc. Nathaniel Ollis, who was on board the Stryker and attended Wednesday’s service.
They were driving near a village called Omar Zai – so small it doesn’t appear on most maps – when a 600-pound bomb exploded. The three soldiers were killed. Ollis, now recovering at Madigan Army Medical Center, shattered both heels. Another soldier’s leg was so badly damaged it later needed to be amputated. An interpreter was also hurt in the attack.
“There didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary before we got hit. We were just driving and it went off,” Ollis said. “The floor ripped in two.”
The deaths come amid the American military’s push to force the Taliban out of southern Afghanistan. Sixteen soldiers from 5th Brigade have died since it deployed in July.
Smith, Reynolds and White were the first three casualties from the brigade’s 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. The unit is serving in the sparsely populated Zabul province, which borders Pakistan.
In a speech read by the unit’s rear detachment commander, the men’s battalion commander, who is serving in Afghanistan, praised the three as young leaders to whom other soldiers looked for advice.
“They have now joined the ranks of thousands of American soldiers who have gone before them and laid down their lives for the cause of freedom,” Lt. Col. Burton Shields said.
The memorial service included eulogies for the three soldiers. Bagpipers played “Amazing Grace,” an honor guard provided a rifle salute and a bugler played taps. After the ceremony was complete, many in the crowd queued to pay their respects before a framed photo of each soldier and a memorial of a rifle, boots, dog tags and an overturned helmet.
The loss of the three soldiers was particularly painful, the battalion commander said.
“What strikes me about these three soldiers is that they were junior leaders – the types of leaders that make a unit strong,” Shields said in his speech, read Wednesday by Capt. Derrick Boden. “They were the leaders down in the trenches, leading by example. They were taking young privates under the wings and teaching them how to be professional soldiers.”
It was the first memorial ceremony for 5th Brigade that Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby attended. The Fort Lewis commander is halfway through a deployment with I Corps to be the American military’s second-in-command in Iraq, but he was back on post as part of his two weeks of leave each deployed soldier receives.
Jacoby spent time earlier this week visiting the brigade’s wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Staff Sgt. Edward B. Smith
Smith, 30, of Homestead, Fla., was one of the first members of 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment as it was being formed.
Spc. Lawrence McLaurin was already assigned to the unit. The two quickly became friends, sharing meals and inviting the other to his home.
“His family became my family,” McLaurin said, “and my family became his family.”
Smith, a seven-year veteran of the Army, knew about personal loss: His mother died last year, and he lost his brother three months before he deployed. McLaurin, though grieved, said he was happy his friend would be reunited with his own loved ones.
“Staff Sgt. Smith and I were sitting in the car after his brother’s funeral, and he said to me, ‘I’m really hurt because I don’t have my brother here,’ ” McLaurin remembers. “I said to him, ‘You’ll always have a brother. Even though we’re not blood, we’ll always be connected at the heart.”
Smith enlisted in 2002 and deployed to Iraq in 2004-05. He reported to Fort Lewis in June 2007.
He is survived by his wife, Lucretia, and their two children, Deanndrea and Deiontay.
Sgt. Titus R. Reynolds
Reynolds, 23, of Columbus, Ohio, served as a squad leader in his company’s mortar section. But for his friend, Sgt. Steven Colbert, Reynolds was also the life of the party whenever he went out with his friends. Two downtown Tacoma haunts, Cans and the Swiss, were favorites.
“No matter how long the nights got and how cold the (physical training) formations were,” Colbert said, “he was always full of confidence and motivation.
Reynolds met his wife, Dominique, when they were both 13. After years of drifting in and out of contact, they fell in love when they were 20. Dominique, who goes by the nickname Nikki, said in a statement that her husband lived for the quiet moments he could spend with her.
“His strength of character supported those he loved and his belief in God and country is the legacy he leaves to those around him,” she said. “He had an easy smile and a boyish charm and he fully believed in what he was fighting for in Afghanistan.”
He is survived by his wife, Dominique.
Spc. Joseph V. White
White, 21, of Bellevue, garnered a reputation for being a serious soldier with a wicked sense of humor that manifested itself in memorable ways.
White, who had previously served in Iraq with an airborne infantry unit, decided one day to show his colleagues at Fort Lewis what a parachute landing should look like – so he climbed to the top of the company’s vending machine and jumped, rolling on the ground as he landed.
“In front of our company, as we were holding formation, he executed a trade skill which he was so proud of,” his friend, Pvt. Jacob Dennis said Wednesday.
White joined the Army in 2005 and deployed in 2007-08 with the 82nd Airborne Division as part of the troop surge in Iraq. He served as a gunner on his mortar team.
He arrived at Fort Lewis on March 10.
White is survived by his wife, Jessica.