By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD – A formation of 20 soldiers gathered on the lawn next to the 1st Cavalry Division's chapel on Thursday afternoon after a ceremony to honor those who died in Iraq.
As a man in a suit, a woman and a little girl approached the formation, the soldiers snapped to attention. They stood in the sun as Capt. Chris Wooldridge and the man in the suit said a few words.
"Sabers never quit!" they shouted in unison.
The soldiers were then dismissed, and one by one, talked, shook hands or hugged the man in the suit.
The man in the suit was Robert Baloga, the father of Pvt. Michael A. Baloga. The soldiers were from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team's 6th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, the Sabers.
Baloga, a 21-year-old cavalry scout, died July 26 in Muqdadiyah, Iraq, of wounds suffered in a roadside bomb explosion. He joined the Army to provide for his daughter, Isis, and planned on making it his career. He always wanted to learn and saw everything as a learning opportunity, said Spc. Joe Jenkins.
"Unlike many of us who experience a few butterflies when embarking upon new adventures, Baloga was never intimidated," he said.
Wooldridge is the squadron's rear detachment commander and said soldiers try to attend every memorial ceremony because more than likely, one of them knew someone being remembered at the monthly ceremony.
The soldiers talk with family members to help them through the grieving process and provide them some sense of closure, Wooldridge said.
It also gives the soldiers more perspective on their peers – a person they may have known as just a buddy or a soldier, the captain said. Meeting a fallen soldier's family takes it to an even more intimate level because one gets to see who and what shaped their friend or co-worker's life. It takes it beyond just being a soldier, Wooldridge said, and lets the soldiers know that they have helped.
Nearly all of the soldiers in the squadron formation Thursday afternoon have deployed to Iraq and know what the soldiers who are overseas now have gone through.
"This is not the first battle buddy or friend they've lost," Wooldridge said.
Baloga was one of seven soldiers eulogized during the ceremony.
Spc. Donald M. Young had a passion for the outdoors – climbing, hiking, snowboarding and fishing. He loved fishing though he wasn't very good at it, Sgt. 1st Blaine Dowell said.
"I guess it would be better to state he loved spending time with his family and friends while sitting in a boat with a string dangling in the water," Dowell said.
Young was always in a good mood, even in the most arduous situation. When he went home to Helena, Mont., on leave, everyone was amazed at how the tall, scrawny kid they grew up with had turned into a lean, mean, fighting machine, Dowell said. He wanted to show his father, Richard, some moves he learned in the Army, but didn't realize the former Marine has a few moves of his own.
Young died Aug. 7 while serving with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team. He was 19.
Whenever Spc. Zandra T. Walker was teased about her down-home Southern accent, she would respond, "I speak country language, baby." When she got mad, her accent got worse, said Sgt. Tara Bishop.
Walker always had a take-charge, big sister or motherly attitude in her, and her sense of humor and girlish mischief made the days enjoyable, Bishop said. She had the uncommon ability to lighten the air with her presence and no matter what the situation, she always seemed to be ready to burst at the seams with a cheerful energy.
"She was kind, caring and a good friend to everyone around her," Bishop said. "This is how I will best remember Spc. Walker, and I am certain that this is how she wants to be remembered."
The sergeant said Walker, who called her "Mama Bishop," was like a daughter to her.
The 28-year-old died Aug. 15 while serving with the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade's 615th Aviation Support Battalion.
While in Iraq, Sgt. Princess Crystal Dawn Samuels would encourage and reassure her first sergeant with one phrase: "It's going to be all right, first sergeant. I got your back." She always had a way of encouraging him even though he felt he was supposed to be encouraging her, said Sgt. 1st Class Ricardo Macias. Samuels was one of a kind, and if her name wasn't unique enough, she drove a sparkling hot-pink Mustang, Macias said.
"She was something else and you couldn't do anything but smile," he said.
She even brought her love of pink to Iraq. She received some boxes in the mail once and when her roommate returned, it looked like a pink flamingo exploded in the room, Macias said. There were pink sheets, pink pillowcases, pink and purple towels, a pink clock, etc.
Before she deployed, she brought her dog to the brigade headquarters for a lunch. Samuels walked up carrying a white teacup poodle with pink ears, pink nail polish and pink bows.
"Just when you think you've seen it all," Macias thought to himself.
Samuels died Aug. 15 while serving with Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Brigade Combat Team. She was 22.
Pfc. Omar E. Torres attended Ohio State University for one and a half years before he joined the Army. He was in the Ohio National Guard, received a four-year scholarship and was placed on the dean's list at the end of his freshman year, said Sgt. Daniel Whitehead. The 20-year-old wanted to enter politics later in life. He had extremely high test scores and could have had any job in the Army, but chose infantry. To him, that's what being a soldier was all about, according to information from the division.
"Private First Class Omar Torres lived every day like it might be his last, and always maintained a smile," Whitehead said.
Torres died Aug. 22 while serving with Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team.
Staff Sgt. Wilberto Suliveras was a tank commander with the 1st Brigade Combat Team's Cobra Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, and serving his second tour to Iraq.
He was a man known for his ability to make things happen for his soldiers, platoon and unit, Staff Sgt. Grant Stafford read from a letter by the company's supply sergeant in Iraq. Suliveras, or "Suli," had what the soldiers called "the hookup." He never allowed his soldiers to be in need of anything, and they admired, respected and relied on him.
Suliveras died July 28 at the age of 38.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7547
Spc. Charlie E. Leonard Jr. spoke through his actions, not necessarily his words, said Staff Sgt. Michael Jennings. That's what helped make him Jennings' "go-to guy."
Jennings and Leonard loved college and pro football – Leonard a Louisiana State University fan and Jennings a University of Texas fan. The two would often argue who would have a better season.
Leonard would never talk about his wife and daughter without his face lighting up.
"He was such a proud father walking into the room with a smile from ear to ear showing the latest photos of his daughter," Jennings said.
He would also talk about how proud he was of his wife going back to school.
Leonard died Aug. 5 while serving with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team. He was 30.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at email@example.com or (254) 501-7547