Fort Lewis held another ceremony Tuesday to remember four soldiers killed in Iraq: two combat veterans who helped build a new brigade from scratch, and a pair of young infantrymen who joined the Army in a time of war.
About 300 soldiers, family members and others turned out at the Soldiers Field House to pay respects to Staff Sgts. David C. Kuehl and Kristopher A. Higdon, Cpl. Mathew P. LaForest and Pfc. Robert A. Worthington.
All four were assigned to the brigade’s 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment. All were killed in Taji, about 10 miles north of Baghdad, in three attacks in the week before Memorial Day.
Maj. Chad Sundem, the rear detachment commander with the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, noted the timing.
“The talk over that Memorial Day weekend of sacrifice and selfless service can never be so vivid as it is right now,” he said Tuesday.
The brigade has endured a difficult first month in Iraq, with 10 soldiers killed in action in Baghdad and in Diyala province, northeast of the capital.
Higdon and Worthington died May 22 in an insurgent bomb attack on their vehicle. Kuehl died the same day in a separate bombing. LaForest was shot May 25.
Capt. Erik Summers, their battalion’s rear detachment commander, said the two noncommissioned officers were among the first to arrive about this time two years ago to begin to build their battalion and brigade, at the time the Army’s newest Stryker unit.
It was filled with new recruits and led by ranks of junior leaders like Kuehl and Higdon with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They were combat veterans who knew the standard of training but also enforced it on the soldiers who arrived, every day ensuring the soldiers in their care were ready for the challenges that lie ahead,” Summers said.
“They were also devoted husbands and fathers who cherished nothing more than the time they had with their families, and that love they gave will stay forever.”
Cpl. Douglas Darlow recalled the time when Kuehl sent him home from training to be with his father who was undergoing cancer surgery. Kuehl helped him get a plane ticket, and made sure he had a ride to the airport and money in his pocket.
“He called every other day to check on me and my family and my father,” Darlow said. “That spoke volumes about Sergeant Kuehl and showed what kind of man he was. No matter what the situation, he was always there for his soldiers, putting them first.”
Of the two younger soldiers, Summers noted “they joined the Army during the most challenging of times. The war on terror had been going on four to six years when they enlisted, two young men who passed on a life of 9-to-5 to serve a cause greater than themselves.”
Tuesday’s memorial was the fourth ceremony in three weeks, as Fort Lewis has endured its worst combat losses since the beginning of the war.
Post officials, citing the increased number of casualties, decided last month to discontinue individual memorial ceremonies for soldiers and hold a single monthly memorial instead.
Officials are reconsidering that decision, and the outcome will likely wait until after the post’s new commanding general, Maj. Gen. Charles Jacoby Jr., assumes command next week.
In the meantime, more memorial ceremonies are pending, including one Thursday and others next week for soldiers from the 4th Brigade and the other deployed Stryker brigade, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Staff Sgt. Kristopher A. Higdon, 25, Odessa, Texas
Higdon, an eight-year Army veteran, was six weeks into his second combat tour in Iraq when he was killed. He was a squad leader and arrived to build the new 4th Brigade at Fort Lewis in July 2005. He was known for always putting the needs of his soldiers first, said Sgt. Dick Plank, his former roommate. “He would always tell me how much he loved and missed his wife and kids,” Plank said. He is survived by his wife, Makayne, and their children, Hunter and Kacie, as well as his parents and three brothers.
Staff Sgt. David C. Kuehl, 27, Wahpeton, N.D.
Kuehl, who joined the Army out of high school in 1999, was on his second deployment in Iraq. Like Higdon, he was among the first noncommissioned officers to arrive at Fort Lewis in the spring of 2005 to build the new 4th Brigade. Residents of his home town, Wahpeton, and, Breckenridge, that of his wife, Amy, lined the streets to pay their respects as his remains were returned home for burial Saturday. More than 700 attended the funeral, including North Dakota’s governor. Kuehl also is survived by two daughters, Kiley and Messa, who he named after a young girl he befriended on his first trip to Iraq, his parents, and two sisters.
Pfc. Robert A. Worthington, 19, Jackson, Ga.
Worthington joined the Army last summer and arrived at Fort Lewis in January. He received his GED through the National Guard Challenge program and completed Airborne School before arriving at Fort Lewis. Photos that were shown at his funeral Saturday in Georgia depicted him as a boy and young man who was always smiling; a friend who remembered him Tuesday said the same. “Every time we talked, he always laughed, no matter what,” said Pfc. Carlos Garcia. He is survived by his parents in Georgia.
Cpl. Mathew P. LaForest, 21, Austin, Texas
LaForest arrived at Fort Lewis in January 2005 and was serving his first deployment in Iraq. He grew up on Air Force bases until his officer father, Mark LaForest, retired and settled in Austin. He played the trumpet in his high school band and participated in the Junior ROTC. His mother, Debra Broughn of Platsburgh, N.Y., wrote a poem that was read at Tuesday’s ceremony. His family said he aspired to go to college when his enlistment was complete. He also is survived by his stepmother, his brother and his sister. He was posthumously promoted from specialist.