By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD – Six men, all in their 20s. Six brothers – not by blood, but certainly blood brothers. Six soldiers, lost in six days.
Staff Sgt. Blake Harris, Staff Sgt. Terry Prater, Sgt. Emerson Brand, Sgt. Ryan Green, Sgt. Nicholas Lightner and Pfc. James Arnold.
Six names on a list that leave an unfathomable hole in the 1st Cavalry Division's Bravo Company, 1st Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
Harris, Prater, Brand and Arnold died March 15 in Baghdad, Iraq, after a roadside bomb detonated during combat operations. Green died three days later in Landstuhl, Germany, from his wounds. Lightner died three days after Green at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
These men are remembered by their Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, no doubt honored as heroes in their small towns. Four of the men were from towns that ranged from 2,838 to 9,833 people. The other two were from towns of 29,862 and 55,649.
All but two, the senior-ranking soldiers, were married. They both had children. Lightner had two brothers: Josh and Nathan. He wanted to get out of the Army when he got back from Iraq and join them in their construction business. All of these soldiers' parents survive them.
Besides their families, perhaps no one knew these six men like Bravo Company's 1st Sgt. Orlando Garcia. He was at Fort Hood on Thursday afternoon to honor his soldiers and 14 other 1st Cavalry soldiers who died in Iraq from Feb. 19 to March 21.
When Garcia got in front of the crowd at the 1st Cavalry Memorial Chapel, he said a few words about each of his men.
Harris was a cook before he became a fire support noncommissioned officer and probably a bad one at that. Prater was an inspiration, Brand was a bigger Dallas Cowboys fan than he was. Green was Captain America. Literally. He bought a costume, complete with spandex and fake muscles, and took it to Iraq with him. Lightner was his right-hand man. At 6 feet, 4 inches, Arnold was his quiet giant.
Prater didn't have to be on that mission in mid-March. He was injured in 2004 during an act that earned him the Silver Star. He was loading four casualties into a vehicle in downtown Baghdad when a grenade landed next to him and another soldier. He pushed the other soldier toward the vehicle and took the brunt of the blast. He received severe wounds to the neck, legs and face – the same face that Sgt. Roel Pena and others in the unit said was a "baby face."
Soldiers grow close in training and combat, but Bravo Company is known for its special unity, Garcia said. They are an outstanding bunch of guys known as a bit rebellious and crazy, Garcia said, with a mischievous but proud smile.
"We love doing what we're doing," he said.
"We keep each other sane. We keep each other together."
Not only were these men in the same company, they were in the same platoon. Lightner was assigned to the battalion's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, but was attached to Bravo Company as a platoon medic.
Losing six soldiers at one time was devastating, Garcia said. Another of the platoon soldiers, Spc. James J. Coon, died April 4. He will be honored during May's memorial service.
Coon was killed a short time after he tried to save a few of the soldiers during that March 15 incident. He heard the radio calls for help and jumped out of his vehicle. He patched up Green and Lightner, the two men who managed to survive a little longer than the others. His leaders rewarded his efforts by nominating him for a Bronze Star with Valor.
That equals seven fallen soldiers in a tight-knit group, whose members Garcia feels are like his sons and brothers.
"It's like losing a big chunk of our heart," the 45-year-old infantryman said Thursday afternoon.
His guys are resilient, though, they have a bond that keeps them strong in a time like this. The men knew the losses hurt Garcia and they were there for him.
The deaths put their heads back in the game.
"We can't stop now," he said. "They were out there for a reason.
"If we quit, we dishonor them."
The following 14 soldiers were also honored at the ceremony Thursday:
Spc. Montrel S. McArn was four days away from his 22nd birthday when he died Feb. 19. The tank crewman and loader was a hilarious guy who wasn't scared of anything, said his friend, Pfc. Travis Goodwin. One of the smartest soldiers in the unit, McArn had a noncommissioned officer-type personality, Goodwin added. He served with Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team.
Staff Sgt. Pedro Colon was a "soldier's soldier" who was tough, fair and compassionate, and never dreamed of making excuses, said Staff Sgt. Grant Stafford. He was just as good at sorting out his soldiers' pay issues as he was clearing a room, Stafford added. The former mechanic turned infantryman was quick on his feet and eager to accept any mission. He served with Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, and died Feb. 19 at the age of 25.
Spc. Luis O. Rodriguez-Contrera, was born in Santiago, Dominican Republic, lived in New York and Pennsylvania. He joined the Army because he had a deep love for his country and fellow Americans, and wanted to make a difference for his wife and two children, said Staff Sgt. John Thomas. He was known among his friends as being a passionate basketball fan, a regular Dick Vitale (a college basketball announcer), Thomas joked. Before leaving for Iraq with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, he told his wife, daughter and unborn son, "Don't worry, daddy will be back soon." The 22-year-old died March 2.
Staff Sgt. Paul M. Latourney always knew the Army was his calling, said Sgt. 1st Class John Silva. It was in his blood. The 28-year-old was an intelligent guy who could speak four languages and turned down a scholarship to the University of Illinois for the Army, Silva said. He was the "epitome of what a soldier represents." Latourney was such a soldier, Silva said, that he was probably over the battlefield in Iraq, watching over his soldiers. He served with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, and died March 2.
Sgt. Blake Harris might have been 22, but he was a child stuck in a man's body, joked Sgt. 1st Class Michael Hamilton. He said Harris' wife, Joanna, said he always made her laugh, even when she didn't want to. He was a sensitive, caring and thoughtful person who was one of the most loyal people Hamilton said he ever met. Harris would always tell people the truth, even if it wasn't what they wanted to hear. He served with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Squadron, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, and died March 5.
Cpl. Ryan D. Russell was saving the life of a fellow soldier when he lost his. The 20-year-old medic had the courage it took to put his life at risk for another, Pfc. Glen Leach said, and that takes more courage than anyone could ever imagine. Russell's mom told Leach it was a surprise her son became a medic because he always was squeamish around medication and needles. He died March 5 while serving with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Squadron, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
Pvt. Barry Mayo was a small-town guy from New Albany, Miss., who was the kind of person people respected and wanted to emulate. The Army didn't make him that way, said Sgt. David Griffin, but those values were instilled in him by his family. The 21-year-old had a great sense of humor and did everything with compassion and a smile, Griffin said. He was assigned to Bravo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, and died March 5.
Sgt. Michael Rivera was from a patriotic family from Brooklyn, N.Y., and followed his brother, a Marine, into military service. Rivera grew up in a home where patriotism was not just a word to be used, but to be lived, said Staff Sgt. Matt Martinez. He served in Iraq with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, while his brother was there with the Marines. The 22-year-old died March 7.
When Staff Sgt. and Christopher Webb and Staff Sgt. David Barett first met, they didn't get along too well. They were serving a rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center when Barett put Webb's soldiers on the duty roster. Webb said to take the names off the list because no one would work his soldiers but him. The two argued and did some noncommissioned officer-negotiating, Barett said, and the names came off the list. After a 36-hour assignment with no sleep, Barett had to make another duty roster for another 10-hour mission. When Webb saw two of his soldiers on the list, he told Barett to replace their names with his. That was the kind of leader Webb was, Barett said. The 28-year-old died March 7. He served with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team.
Spc. Shawn Rankinen, 28, was an athlete who enjoyed karate, running track and swimming. He loved to do physical training, said Sgt. John McMahon. The Missouri native joined the Navy in 1999 and served as a helicopter mechanic before joining the Army in 2006. He was anxious to serve his country, McMahon said. Rankinen died March 7 while serving with Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team.
Pvt. Mark W. Graham loved life and lived it to the fullest, said Sgt. J. Flores. The 22-year-old was outspoken without being abrasive or offensive. He had a positive attitude, smiling face and cheerful heart, Flores said. He was an intelligent guy who became his platoon sergeant's driver shortly after arriving in Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. He died March 7.
Spc. Jonathan "Jon Jon" Smith was the epitome of what a soldier in the U.S. Army should be, said Warrant Officer-1 David Temple. His spirit, commitment and courage were commendable. Though God granted the 19-year-old only a short time on earth, people who knew Smith must be grateful that he came along and made an impact on their lives, Temple said. Smith was a JROTC cadet in his South Atlanta high school and a section leader of the percussion band – something that helped developed the leadership skills he would later use in the Army. He died March 11 while serving with Foxtrot Company, 115th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team.
There was nothing complicated about Spc. Adam J. Rosema, said Staff Sgt. Denise Bullard. What you saw was what you got with the 27-year-old. The simple, honest man loved his music and anything fast. His music of choice was anything with long hair and loud guitars. He was also a big fan of NASCAR. Bullard said Rosema was the kind of guy people don't realize how much they miss until he isn't there. He was a "great soldier and simple man with a huge heart," she said. Rosema died March 14 while assigned to Echo Company, 215th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
Cpl. Stephen Kowalczyk was a wanderer who worked as a lab technician in the Utah desert, traveling craftsman along the California coast and dishwasher and handyman in Jerusalem. The 32-year-old immersed himself in Jewish culture and wanted to join the Israeli army. Instead, he joined the U.S. Army after Sept. 11, said Spc. Daniel Wockasen. As a writer, Kowalczyk captured the kinds of things on paper that a photographer couldn't capture in a picture. He served with Charlie Company, 6th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, and died March 14.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7547