Honoring the fallen

Herald/Steven Doll - During a dedication ceremony for the soldiers that were killed on Feb. 9, 2009, by a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device in Iraq, the family members of the soldiers stand together with other soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, in a moment of prayer Wednesday morning.

By Alicia Lacy

Killeen Daily Herald

FORT HOOD - Sgt. Joshua Ward was always by Lt. Col. Garnet Derby's side.

The morning of Feb. 9, 2009, that's where Ward was found - by his boss' side, Col. Gary Volesky said.

That day, Ward, Derby, Pfc. Albert Jex, Pfc. Jonathan Roberge and Jevan Ali Othman were traveling in the Ninewah Province in Mosul, Iraq, after meeting with key Iraqi leaders, Lt. Col. Timothy Brumfiel said.

As their Humvee approached one of the busiest intersections in west Mosul, a van loaded with explosives approached from the opposite direction and detonated, killing the four soldiers and their Iraqi translator.

The five were memorialized Wednesday as their unit, the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, rededicated a building and a room.

The battalion's headquarters was named in honor of Derby, who was the battalion commander at the time of his death. The Headquarters and Headquarters Company building's Guardian Conference Room was dedicated to Ward, Jex, Roberge and Othman.

Derby was 44 at the time of his death. Ward was 30, Jex was 23, Roberge was 22 and Othman was 27.

Losing a son

Family members of Ward and Jex attended Wednesday's ceremony. Ward's mother, Patti Ward, said it's been rough. But keeping her son's memory alive is important.

Described as a confidante and a rock, Ward was the guy to whom anyone could talk. He loved his twin sons and fiancée. At the time of the attack, Ward's fiancée was five months pregnant. Ward never got the chance to meet his youngest son, Alexander, but the baby gets plenty of hugs from grandma, Patti said.

Patti described her son as an optimist who "lived with the glass half full."

"He was hilarious. He was a joker with a huge heart and he loved his mama," she said, blinking back tears.

Patti said her son would always ask why she was sad and he would tell her there was no reason to be sad because she was alive - something she tries to apply to her life after his death.

Penny Clark attended the ceremony with Ward. Clark's son, Spc. Ryan Schlaffer, was in Iraq that February.

She moved from New York to Matagorda, on the Gulf Coast, to support Patti and be closer to her son, who is assigned to the brigade's 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment.

Cathy McFarlane used to talk with her son, Jex, regularly through phone calls and instant messages.

Since last February, McFarlane said life has been a "roller coaster ride" and her "normal" has changed.

Coping and remembering

Each of the mothers deal with the death of their sons differently.

Patti rides in biker rallies for the soldiers. It isn't unusual for soldiers to stay at her home.

"I live for soldiers," she said, adding that it helps her cope.

"What I'm doing now means everything to me."

Being with and around soldiers helps Patti stay connected to her son.

McFarlane formed relationships with other Gold Star mothers and learned what has worked for them.

When Jex returned home to New York before he deployed, McFarlane said he listed her as his insurance benefactor, something she said she didn't want to consider. But his words reassured her and those same words reassure her today: "Mom, you can do it."

McFarlane drives her yellow Dodge Caliber that is decorated to serve as a rolling tribute to her son and other soldiers.

Losing a leader

Derby led his battalion to Iraq in December 2008. He was the first Fort Hood-based battalion commander to die in combat since the beginning of the war in 2003.

Brumfiel said it's rare for a high-ranking officer to be killed during a deployment.

"It's unfortunate circumstances. (The dedication) is a continuation of a legacy for this unit and in remembrance of the soldiers in the unit," he said.

Volesky, 3rd Brigade's former commander, said he had never lost a closer friend than Derby.

"Lt. Col. Derby and I saw eye to eye on most things, which is probably why I felt so close to him," he said. "Like me, he smiled when he was characterized as attacking a problem with 'brute force and ignorance.'

"He was our blunt instrument, and we loved him."

Volesky described Derby as a good leader and soldier who loved his soldiers.

'One of us'

Othman was Derby's translator and began working with coalition forces in 2005.

"He took pride in what he was doing and believed he was helping to make a better future for Iraq," Volesky said. "He wasn't just a translator; he was one of us."

Days before the explosion, Othman received his United States visa and was set to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen in May 2009.

Othman had the option to leave Iraq and begin his new life in the United States. He chose to stay with the unit because he didn't want to interrupt the mission.

Othman was "true-to-his-heart and true-to-his-mission linguist," said Command Sgt. Maj. James Pippin, the brigade's senior noncommissioned officer.

Contact Alicia Lacy at alacy@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHfeatures.

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