FORT HOOD — Among the stones bearing the names of “Lumberjack” soldiers killed during the battalion’s four deployments since 2001 are four soldiers’ stones without noted combat operations in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Instead those stones read “5 November 2009.”
Pfc. Aaron Nemelka, 19, Pfc. Michael Pearson, 22, Spc. Kham Xiong, 23, and Spc. Frederick Greene, 29, were all members of the 20th Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade. They were killed in the mass shooting that day, along with nine others, at the Soldier Readiness Processing Center. The were getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan in January 2010.
Three of the men were assigned to a platoon in the 510th Clearance Company. Eleven other Lumberjack soldiers were among the 32 people injured in the shooting.
“It’s in difficult moments like this that your character is really revealed,” said Col. Pete Andrysiak, Lumberjack commander on that now infamous day. “There are two ways to go. You either fall apart or you draw strength from it. (The soldiers) all drew strength from one another.”
When Andrysiak arrived at his office the following morning, he said there were people standing outside with food asking, “What can we do?” His wife, Casey Andrysiak, stepped in as the family readiness group’s senior adviser to organize the outpouring of community support, while providing for the 11 families visiting their injured soldiers.
“I had dealt with the injury and deaths of soldiers per my husband’s previous deployments — however — nothing near the scale of need resulting from this incident,” she said. “And, there are many processes, people (and) plans for combat related injuries and casualties. For an incident such as this? We had no precedent.”
Many families dropped everything to travel to Fort Hood. They had no bags packed, transportation from airports across the state or hotel reservations. The family group took charge of providing needed items and food — receiving, packaging and distributing warm meals for seven days to the 11 families, as well as restaurant gift cards for the following two or three weeks. There were enough monetary and gift card donations to meet every single clothing and toiletry request during that time period.
“We asked and we received beyond anything we could have ever imagined,” Casey Andrysiak said.
Not only did the shooting send the battalion into a whirlwind, it also brought up a bigger question — should these soldiers deploy?
“There was discussion saying, ‘We can’t send them; they’ve gone through too much,’” said Pete Andrysiak, who now serves as commander of the 2nd Engineer Brigade in Alaska. “My point was — this is part of what being in the Army is about. You lose people and continue the mission. ... There were units on the other end that had taken casualties. The battalion we were replacing had taken 11.”
The unit brought in support for soldiers — many of whom had just lost their friends — and allowed soldiers who felt unready to stay back. But most stepped up to the challenge, even more focused on the mission at hand.
Andrysiak said he saw many examples of personal courage during that time, such as Spc. Alan Carroll who was shot three times but still deployed with the unit.
Then-1st Lt. Ryan Corken had been platoon leader for about six months when the shooting occurred. After losing three men, soldiers pressed on because, “we had a job to do and, if we could, we needed to do it.”
He knew when his soldiers went downrange, all eyes would be on them.
“There was concern if we did deploy and the platoon broke down during deployment, there would be a lot of questions of why these guys deployed in the first place,” said Corken, who is now a student at Boston University and spent his four years in the Army with the Lumberjacks.
Instead, the platoon truly came together and went on to be the best performing platoon in a difficult area of Afghanistan, Andrysiak said.
“If there was going to be a positive I would say that was it,” Corken said. “But it would have been better if it hadn’t happened at all. Yes, it brought the team together more, but that’s kind of insignificant compared to what actually happened.”
In Andrysiak’s office, he said he has a poster bearing the names of those four soldiers killed on Nov. 5, as well as the 13 casualties suffered during the yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
“I’m one of these people who always kept things to myself, but I was doing folks a lot of disservice by not talking about it. There’s a lot of things we learned from it,” the colonel said.
“Even here (during) in-briefs, I asked, ‘How many soldiers were lost and what are you doing to remember them?’”
Back at the Lumberjack memorial tucked into a corner outside the battalion’s headquarters, it’s clear the soldiers whose names are etched in stone are remembered.
Soldiers on staff duty try to keep an eye on the memorial, making sure the flags are in place and the site is clean.
Occasionally, some will find candles, notes or bottles, where someone came by to visit and have a drink with an old friend.