When they started planning it early this month, soldiers with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division didn’t intend that Thursday’s memorial to their comrades recently killed in Iraq would be Fort Lewis’ largest such ceremony of the war.
But with each grim new report of another loss, it became that.
Sgt. Chadrick O. Domino was shot in Baghdad May 31. Cpl. Romel Catalan died in a bombing two days later.
Then June 3, four soldiers – Staff Sgt. Greg P. Gagarin and Sgts. James C. Akin, Tyler J. Kritz and Robert A. Surber – were killed in Thania when their Humvee was hit by a bomb.
Sgt. Andrew J. Higgins was shot June 5 in Baqouba, and four days later, Pvt. Scott A. Miller met the same fate there.
And finally, on Sunday, Staff Sgt. Brian M. Long was killed in an explosion in Baghdad.
And so the brigade would have to remember nine of its fallen soldiers in one hourlong, midday tribute at Soldiers Field House.
Despite the numbers, “we recognize and remember each individually, because that is how they joined our ranks, each making the personal and unselfish decision to become a soldier,” Maj. Kyle Marsh, the brigade’s rear detachment commander, told about 400 soldiers, family members and others.
“Each soldier’s contribution was vital to the mission in Iraq, and to preserving our freedom. Our heartfelt admiration and deepest respect goes out to them and their families.”
Before Thursday, the largest number of soldiers remembered at a single ceremony was six.
Thursday, a portrait of each soldier was placed on the gym stage, along with the traditional symbols of military memorials: a pair of combat boots, an inverted rifle, a helmet and dog tags.
The soldiers were from each of the brigade’s three infantry battalions, as well as its field artillery battalion. Each was represented by a speaker who shared personal anecdotes or read comments made by fellow soldiers back in Iraq.
Maj. Hank Barnes, the rear detachment commander from the brigade’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, said his two soldiers – Higgins and Miller – died in a place known for its orchards and lush date palm groves. Baqouba has been the scene of much sectarian and criminal violence and is among the most dangerous places in Iraq, Barnes said.
The battalion fought its way into the area in March and has begun to secure the area and restore services, he said.
“Mourn their loss,” he said of the soldiers, “but know that they made a difference in Iraq.”
The 3rd Brigade is a year into its second deployment to Iraq and had been scheduled to start coming home this month, before being extended until October. The brigade has lost 37 soldiers in that time.
The chaplain, Maj. Steven George, told mourners to lean on one another for support and know that the soldiers died doing something they believed in.
“Their sacrifice, their heroism, their willingness to lay down their life for friends was not some foolish gesture,” George said. “Each soldier recognizes that the war-torn land in which they found themselves was deeply in need of help.”
TREMENDOUS SACRIFICE FROM NINE SOLDIERS
Sgt. Chadrick O. Domino
Died May 31 after he was shot in Baghdad. Served with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment.
He went to Iraq with the 3rd Brigade on its first deployment as a personnel specialist but decided there that he’d rather be an infantryman.
Domino was wounded on that trip when his hooch in Mosul was hit by a mortar – three years and a day before he was killed. He ran back into the burning structure to try to save his roommate, but the soldier died of his wounds.
“No one could have asked for a better man watching your back, day in and day out,” said his former company commander, Maj. James Blanton.
He is survived by his parents and his sister in Texas.
Cpl. Romel Catalan, 21, of Los Angeles
Died June 2 when a bomb exploded near his vehicle in the Amiriyah District of Baghdad. He was a Stryker driver in the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment.
He joined the Army in 2004, arrived at Fort Lewis that November and deployed to Iraq a year ago.
Family members said he was a fan of superhero comics and dreamed of one day becoming a police officer.
Blanton said his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Avanulas Smiley, told soldiers at a memorial ceremony in Iraq that he remembered Catalan “was always smiling, the kind of guy you always respected just for being himself.”
He is survived by his parents and his sister.
Staff Sgt. Greg P. Gagarin, 38, of Los Angeles
Died June 3 in Thania when a bomb exploded near his Humvee, killing him and three others from the 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment. He was a veteran of Operation Desert Storm and of the 3rd Brigade’s first trip to Iraq.
He was known as a great section chief and as a father figure to the men in his charge. Sgt. 1st Class Shane Wise said he was known as a packrat. He also enjoyed a good card game and cooking Spam on the portable propane stove that he took everywhere in the field. “Soldiers cared for him, soldiers followed him, and he’ll be sorely missed,” Wise said.
He is survived by his wife and his two children, his father and his brother.
Sgt. James C. Akin, 23, of Albuquerque, N.M.
Died June 3 in the Thania blast. Friends and relatives said Akin aspired to be president one day, and joined the Army because if he ever had to send troops into combat, he wanted to know what that was like.
He joined the Army in 2004 after managing a friend’s bid for the state Legislature in New Mexico.
Fellow soldiers said it was almost as if he were already on the campaign trail in Iraq, the way he waved and tossed out candy, Iraqi flags and soccer balls. The kids near the base would chant, “James! James! James!”
“He took tremendous pride in being in the Army, and had enthusiasm for everything he did,” said Sgt. 1st Class Shane Wise.
Akin is survived by his wife and his father.
Sgt. Tyler J. Kritz, 21, of Eagle River, Wis.
Died June 3 in the Thania blast. The cannon crewman joined the Army in 2003, arrived at Fort Lewis the following January and was immediately sent to Iraq to join up with the brigade during its first deployment.
Soldiers said he was meticulous about cleaning his weapon, managed a quick nap on even the bumpiest roads at the Yakima Training Center and played a thumping bass guitar in a band with other soldiers.
“The glass was always half-full with him,” said Sgt. 1st Class Shane Wise, who spoke on behalf of all the 1-37 soldiers at Thursday’s memorial.
Kritz is survived by his mother and his father.
Sgt. Robert A. Surber, 24, of Inverness, Fla.
Died June 3 in the Thania blast. Like Kritz and Gagarin, he was a veteran of the 3rd Brigade’s first Iraq deployment, having joined the Army in January 2002.
Soldiers said Surber loved sports and everything about his home state, especially the Miami Dolphins.
He was also renowned for getting out of physical training in the morning, his tastes in heavy metal music, and his habit of seeing how long he could go before the first sergeant told him to get a haircut.
He was also twice awarded the Army Commendation Medal for heroism or meritorious service.
Surber is survived by his mother, his father and his sister.
Sgt. Andrew J. Higgins, 28, of Hayward, Calif.
Died June 5 after he was shot in Baqouba. He served two years in the Army Reserve, then nine on active duty, and went to Afghanistan with the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment from Fort Lewis.
He was serving his second Iraq deployment with the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.
At his funeral Wednesday in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Hayward Daily Review reported that he was remembered as a dedicated soldier and a kind, affectionate husband to his wife, Rachel. He loved fishing and his two dachshunds.
He is also survived by his parents.
Pvt. Scott A. Miller, 20, of Casper, Wyo.
Died Saturday when he was shot in Baqouba. He also served in the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment as a mortar vehicle driver, an ammo bearer and a rifleman.
He joined the Army in July 2004 and was serving his first tour in Iraq.
His hometown Casper Star-Tribune reported that he was a big country boy who loved hunting, playing good-natured pranks and telling stories.
“He had great big brown eyes and clear from the back of the room, when his eyes really started sparkling or twinkling, I knew he had thought of something that had to do with good-humored mischief,” his high school English teacher Janet Dawson told the paper.
He is survived by his parents.
Staff Sgt. Brian M. Long, 32, of Burns, Wyo.
Died Sunday when unexploded ordinance he’d found while on foot patrol in Baghdad blew up. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment and was a veteran of the brigade’s first deployment to Iraq.
He joined the Navy in 1993 and was a member of the service’s bull-riding team before he switched to the Army and arrived at Fort Lewis in 2000.
Capt. Jim Harbridge, the battalion’s rear detachment commander, said he worked with Long for a year. “He didn’t have to be loud and make a scene; he was just good,” Harbridge said.
He was devoted to his wife, Brenda, and their three children, Harbridge said, and looked forward to the day when he could move them back to Wyoming.
He is also survived by his mother.
Michael Gilbert: 253-597-8921