The Spirit of Fort Hood Chapel was eerily silent on Monday, even though the chapel was packed to capacity.
First Sgt. Dean Pfirman, the senior enlisted advisor for Blackhawk Troop, 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment “Garryowen” had stationed himself before the crowd of roughly 2,000 past and present troopers and family members of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division unit, and had begun to call the roll.
As each name was called, a loud voice rang out with “here, first sergeant.”
Then, Pfirman called out “Sgt. 1st Class Sledge.”
“Sgt. 1st Class Jermaul Sledge.”
Again, no answer.
“Sgt. 1st Class Jermaul Terrance Sledge.”
Answered by silence once again, rifles echoed with the sound of three volleys, followed by the playing of taps. The silence was broken by choked sobs brought home the finality that Sledge, a noncommissioned officer looked up to by so many, would no longer be a part of the formation.
Sledge, 31, died at his Killeen home Nov. 14. He was buried with full military honors at the Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Sierra Vista, Arizona, on Nov. 25.
“We gather to celebrate a life that brought joy to so many,” said Lt. Col. Richard Groen, the squadron commander. “A trooper who thought of family, friends and country before himself. The loss of Sgt. 1st Class Sledge caused a hole in our hearts, and our hearts may never be filled.”
Groen spoke to Sledge’s surviving family members who were in attendance, letting his mother Joyce, father John, sister Nicole and brother Duane know that while every trooper present could never understand the pain of their loss, each was with them in their time of need.
“We hope that we can provide the love and understanding that, in time, can gradually help ease your pain,” he said. “Trying to make sense of what happened leaves us all at a loss, tragically with a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
The squadron commander asked his leaders at all levels within his command to take the mental health of their soldiers seriously, as the loss of any of the troopers to suicide leaves a hole in the unit that can never be filled.
“If you want to honor him, live,” he said simply. “This church is filled to overflowing, and every one here can honor him. Listen, learn and love. Love harder than you’ve ever loved before. We are all fragile right now — be specially observant with anyone who seems to be slipping in the struggle of dealing with this grief.”
The Blackhawk Troop commander, Capt. Steven Bowman, recalled that Sledge was the type of noncommissioned officer every commander wishes for — the kind you could “fire and forget.”
“This means if you give him a task, you can turn 180 degrees, never come back to that task, and it will still get expunged to the highest call,” Bowman said. “As a commander, having NCOs who are fire and forget is one of the greatest gifts. It allows you to concentrate on the bigger picture without having to micromanage leadership. (Sledge) was not only an expert in his craft, he was great at teaching and mentoring these soldiers.”
The troop commander said even the day Sledge died, he had come into the troop headquarters after standing a 24-hour staff duty shift to make sure he and the first sergeant didn’t need anything done.
“That’s who Sgt. 1st Class Sledge was to me — he was a trooper and noncommissioned officer who always did the right thing, was an expert in his field, trained and mentored his troopers and genuinely cared for everyone around him,” Bowman said. “Sgt. 1st Class Sledge will be missed by us all.”
After the memorial, all of those in attendance waited for the chance to stand before the memorial, consisting of a rifle standing up between a pair of combat boots with a helmet on top of it and Sledge’s dog tags hanging down. Many left coins, letting the family know that their loved one would not be forgotten, followed by a slow hand salute to pay their respects.
He was Garryowen, and had touched the lives of many.
Sledge served two combat tours in Afghanistan and one deployment to the Republic of Korea. His awards include the Army Commendation Medal with Valor device, seven Army Commendation Medals, six Army Achievement Medals, the Meritorious Unit Citation, three Army Good Conduct Medals, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two stars, Korean Defense Service Medal, two Noncommissioned Officer Development Ribbons, four Overseas Service Ribbons, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, NATO Medal, Army Service Ribbon and the Combat Action Badge.
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