By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD – Thick as thieves. Never more than 5 feet from each other. Battle Buddies. Brothers. Inseparable since they met. Together again in death.
Spc. Jeremiah P. McCleery and Spc. Jake R. Velloza were born five hours and 18 months apart from each other in California. Both aspired as boys to become soldiers.
McCleery and Velloza, fire support specialists, died from wounds sustained May 2 in Mosul, Iraq, after they were shot by enemy forces. McCleery was 24. Velloza was 22.
They and Spc. Shawn D. Sykes, a cook in the division's 215th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, were honored Thursday at a Fort Hood memorial service.
Spc. Jeremiah Paul McCleery
McCleery's father took him to see troops returning from the Gulf War when he was 4.
"He played Army in the backyard, often trying the patience of his sisters as he captured them," said Capt. Russell Toll, rear detachment commander for the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
McCleery planned on coming back to the United States during his leave to spend time with his girlfriend, A.J., when she was set to have surgery, said Lt. Col. Chris Cieply, the division's rear detachment chaplain. He was going to ask her to marry him.
A.J.'s daughter, Taylor, loved McCleery, who was also known as "Miah." She was often scared at night of the monsters in her room.
"Jeremiah would go in and say, 'You're safe. Miah's on guard' and he'd sit there until Taylor fell asleep," Cieply said. "Now when Taylor asks mom, 'Where's Miah?' A.J. still responds, 'Miah's on guard and you're safe.'"
McCleery is survived by his father, Joe, and sisters, Chastity and Lynette.
Spc. Jake Robert Velloza
Velloza, like the other men honored Thursday, had a strong love for his family, which included his mother, Susan, and father, Bob, Cieply said. He found special strength in the love he shared with his girlfriend, Dani, he added. Velloza was an only child.
Cieply said he heard Bob say that Velloza was his best friend.
"And I thought to myself, 'There is the greatest gift in the world – what every parent would wish for above all else,'" the chaplain said.
Velloza showed talents in athletics and mechanics at an early age. At 15, he welded and assembled a mini bike and took it on a long ride to a seashore north of San Francisco.
"A police officer tailed the young fugitive on the way back and his escapade on the illegal vehicle was laughingly dismissed," Toll said.
Velloza was recognized for heroic actions during a previous incident that led to the rescue of fellow soldiers. But, it wasn't until a ceremony and medal presentation that his parents learned of the incident.
"He cried as he related that experience to me, and I think it was the proudest moment of his life," Susan told Cieply.
Her son was publicly honored at San Francisco Giants' stadium and the bakery in town named his favorite lemon squares after him.
McCleery and Velloza were on the path to become noncommissioned officers, Toll said, quoting their company commander, Capt. Marc Austin.
Spc. Shawn Dante Sykes
Sykes was a 28-year-old serving his fourth tour to Iraq. He served for three years in the Marines before joining the Army.
He was the oldest of five children and dreamt of buying a home in Florida where his family – mother, Marion Cotton, and sisters, Ashley, Brittany, Destinee and Nyanna – could live together, Cieply said. Sykes was the encourager in his family and challenged Destinee and Nyanna to do well in school by promising to reward them with an allowance. When on leave in April, Sykes bought his mother a new freezer and made sure it was stocked with groceries. His MySpace page read that his heroes were his mother and grandmother.
Marion said her son was the anchor of the family – her best friend.
She told Cieply he was always strong, even after he was critically wounded in an accident May 5 at Combat Outpost Crazy Horse, Iraq. He was evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and called home.
"OK, momma," he said to Marion. "Tell everyone I love them."
She told Cieply he "sounded so strong," so it was a terrible shock to the family when he succumbed to his injuries, the chaplain said.
A buddy, Spc. Gregory Darnell, said Thursday that Sykes was a laid-back guy who never got too worked up about politics or general happenings in the unit.
"But when he thought his opinion needed to be heard, he made sure it did," Darnell said. "Especially when it came to his job."
Sykes was an excellent cook, who would often mix prepackaged meals with different seasonings "just to make sure that we weren't eating the same thing over and over again," Darnell said.
Sykes was on call all day, every day and didn't complain, his friend said.
"There were missions going on at all hours of the day and night, but there was always something for the guys to eat when they returned," he added.
It was perhaps food that brought he and his fiancee, Donna, together. They met at a barbecue in 2001 when Sykes was a Marine.
"Shawn came over with my sister's best friend," Donna told Cieply. "And he just never left."
Sykes is survived by his mother; sisters; and father, Sylvester.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7547.