Biden calls 7 Fort Lewis soldiers 'fallen angels'
KRIS SHERMAN; The News Tribune
Seven fallen soldiers brought together the vice president of the United States, at least four members of Congress, retired generals and hundreds of mourners Tuesday at Fort Lewis.
On the eve of this Veterans Day, all seven men were hailed as heroes who knew of honor, duty and country.
But the sacrifices of the members of Fort Lewis’ 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division might have been most evident not in words, but in tender actions.
A father, deep in grief, hugged his son’s gear, not wanting to let go.
Vice President Joe Biden stopped solemnly at each soldier’s helmet, rifle and boots at the end of the service and placed a special coin in honor of each man.
Biden paused for a moment in the center of the North Fort Chapel, slowly saluted and held the tribute for the men he’d earlier credited with bringing hope to their nation.
“They were heroes. They were warriors. They knew the risk, yet day after day they’d saddle up and go out into No Man’s Land and do the job,” Biden said.
He was the nation’s first sitting vice president or president to attend a memorial at the local Army post, at least since the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The seven men remembered Tuesday were part of a Stryker brigade that has reported 28 dead since it was deployed to Afghanistan in July.
Those honored Tuesday were:
• Sgt. 1st Class Luis M. Gonzalez, 27, of South Ozone Park, N.Y.
• Sgt. Fernando Delarosa, 24, of Alamo, Texas.
• Sgt. Dale R. Griffin, 29, of Terre Haute, Ind.
• Sgt. Issac B. Jackson, 27, of Plattsburg, Mo.
• Sgt. Patrick O. Williamson, 24, of Broussard, La.
• Spc. Jared D. Stanker, 22, of Evergreen Park, Ill.
• Pfc. Christopher I. Walz, 25, of Vancouver, Wash.
The seven soldiers died when their vehicle hit a concealed bomb in southern Afghanistan two weeks ago.
Biden said there was no solace he could offer to assuage the terrible loss suffered by these soldiers’ families.
But someday they might find consolation knowing that each man “gave his life in the pursuit of the noblest of all earthly goals: defending his family, defending his country, defending and fighting for what he believed in,” Biden added. “That pursuit defined each of the warriors we honor today; each of the fallen angels we brought home.”
Among the guests Tuesday was former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili, the retired general who lives in Steilacoom; Gov. Chris Gregoire’s husband, Mike; U.S. Reps. Norm Dicks, Adam Smith, Jim McDermott and Jay Inslee; and retired Lt. Gen. William Harrison of Lakewood, a former Fort Lewis commander.
At one point, Biden addressed Shalikashvili this way: “You told me a long, long time ago about the spirit of these kids – they’re not kids, they’re grown men and women – but it’s amazing to me, it’s amazing how so few do so much for so many.”
Nearly 200 Fort Lewis soldiers have died in Iraq, while 46 have died in Afghanistan and the Philippines. There are about 18,000 Fort Lewis troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, some 5,000 of them in Afghanistan, spokesman Joseph Piek said.
Biden met with members of the Walz, Gonzalez and Williamson families before the service. He also spoke with families of some other 5th Brigade soldiers killed in the past three months: Capt. John Hallett, Capt. Cory Jenkins, Sgt. Andrew McConnell, Spc. Aaron Aamot, Spc. Kevin Graham and Spc. Joseph White.
A room in the chapel was set aside before the service for Gold Star families, those who’ve lost someone in the service of the nation.
Fellow soldiers recalled their brothers in arms as pranksters, lovers of music and video games, sports fans, snowboarders, fierce and loyal friends, tender husbands, doting fathers, cherished sons.
Their deaths humble those who survive, and point out the blessings of being more appreciative of the little things in life, Col. Kenneth Hegtvedt, the I Corps chaplain, said in his benediction.
“These seven brave men make this ground hallowed,” he said.
Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659
Sgt. 1st Class Luis M. Gonzalez
Gonzalez, 27, of South Ozone Park, N.Y., was a loving husband, devoted father and “competent, courageous” infantryman, said his friend, Sgt. 1st Class Eric Tapia.
“My best friend, my brother,” Tapia said, his voice heavy with tears. “He accomplished a great deal in his young career in the United States Army infantry.”
Gonzalez had been in the Army only seven years, having enlisted in 2002. Yet he was a squad leader who was soon to be a platoon sergeant.
Known by his men as Crusher 2-2, he was also known as a leader who was easy to talk to. He liked to ride motorcycles and play spades, dominoes and chess.
The loves of his life were his wife, Spc. Jessica Gonzalez, and their 5-month-old son, said Tapia.
Gonzalez deployed to Iraq twice and reported to Fort Lewis in August 2008.
He is also survived by his parents, Angel and Bienvenida Gonzalez of South Ozone Park, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens.
Sgt. Fernando Delarosa
Delarosa, 24, of Alamo, Texas, was the commander of his Stryker vehicle and prided himself on keeping the cleanest- and nicest-smelling Stryker vehicle in the company.
He was also a goal-setter and the sort of man you wanted at your side, his fellow soldiers said.
He was a prankster, a man who “lived for the joy in all moments, seemingly never allowing the pressures to get to him,” said his friend Sgt. Delbert Miller, in remarks shared Tuesday by Spc. Benjamin Simmons. (Miller is in Afghanistan.)
Leaving a piece of yourself behind in the lives of family and friends and in the work you do is important, Delarosa had advised Miller, “to have something last when you are gone.”
Delarosa had completed two tours of duty in Iraq and was assigned to Fort Lewis in July 2007.
He is survived by his wife, Karen; two sons, Fernando and Juan; and his parents, Rolando and Rosa Delarosa of Alamo.
Sgt. Dale R. Griffin
Griffin, 29, of Terre Haute, Ind., talked about music and playing the guitar with his buddies, was an avid fan of martial arts and won the I Corps heavyweight combatives title twice.
He was a reader, a classic car enthusiast, a sportsman who could often be found mountain climbing or biking.
And he had a head for business. Griffin was just a few credits short of earning his degree in business from Saint Martin’s University in Lacey. The university is posthumously awarding the degree and will send it to his family, a spokeswoman said.
He planned on taking over his father’s business after his service in the Army.
Griffin’s friend Sgt. Lawrence Guy remembered him as an enthusiastic singer of Air Supply tunes who would clap and stomp his feet to a beat on the street in Olympia, never mind the weird looks from strangers.
Griffin enlisted in 2005 and was on his first deployment. He reported to Fort Lewis in January 2007.
Griffin is survived by his parents, Gene and Dona Griffin of Terre Haute.
Sgt. Issac B. Jackson
Jackson, 27, of Plattsburg, Mo., liked to yell at the TV while watching football with his buddies. When they told him they couldn’t hear the game, he’d just keep on yelling, always the exuberant fan.
His fellow soldiers knew him also as a man who loved fine clothes and enjoyed working on his truck.
He was the kind of person with whom you could become an instant friend, then argue over not much of anything, Sgt. Brian Stroble recalled in remarks read at the service.
“Even though we drove each other crazy, I had some of the best times of my life just hanging out with him,” Stroble said.
“Rest in peace, Issac,” Stroble said.
Jackson was on his second deployment to Afghanistan. He joined the Army in April 2004 and arrived at Fort Lewis this past July.
He is survived by his wife, Kristen; son Enoch; a baby daughter who is due in December; and his parents, John Jackson and Krystal Kariker of Plattsburg.
Sgt. Patrick O. Williamson
Williamson, 24, of Broussard, La., was known as a jokester, a lover of music, particularly country, and a man who loved to read about and study history, Fort Lewis officials said.
He “loved to start a good debate about history with his buddies,” according to the memorial service program, and was described as a dedicated family man.
He was remembered as a soldier of great happiness who leaves behind memories “of the crazy, ridiculous, silly, but always fun times we had,” Spc. Nicholas James read in remarks prepared by Staff Sgt. Matthew Sanders.
Consummate gentleman. Drinking buddy. Philosopher of life who spent hours on the back of his Stryker vehicle talking about what seemed like nothing but in reality dispensing important messages on family and friendship.
Williamson was on his first deployment. He enlisted in August 2006, and reported to Fort Lewis in January 2007.
He is survived by his parents, Leon and Sybil Williamson of Broussard, a city in south-central Louisiana.
Spc. Jared D. Stanker
Stanker, 22, of Evergreen Park, Ill., planned to marry his high school sweetheart, Abby, and hoped to join the Chicago Police Department when his Army service was concluded.
He loved to play guitar and was a Jimi Hendrix fan, but his tastes in music were broad and his knowledge deep, his fellow soldiers said.
He loved the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the White Sox and the city of Chicago.
He loved life.
And he was a member of a special brotherhood, said his friend Spc. Chas Clark. “We’ve been through a lot together, a lot of both good and bad,” Clark said.
“I hate to have you gone, but I’m lucky to have known you for as long as I did,” Clark said.
Stanker was on his first deployment after having reported to Fort Lewis in March 2007.
He is survived by his parents, Kevin and Susan Stanker of Evergreen Park.
Pfc. Christopher I. Walz
Walz, 25, of Vancouver, Wash., was among the soldiers of whom Vice President Joe Biden spoke when he mentioned their love of sports. Walz was an avid fan of snowboarding.
He liked going to Las Vegas. He was a lover of rap music. And in the 2nd Platoon, he was known for his great attitude despite life’s hardships.
“Chris was the kind of person who always kept a smile and a positive attitude no matter how bad things got,” his friend Pfc. Brian Daley remembered. “He was the life of the party and made the best of any situation.”
Another soldier read the comments on behalf of Daley, who said he just knew that his friend “is in a better place now, kicking back with a beer in both hands.”
Walz enlisted last year and came to Fort Lewis in January.
He is survived by his mother, Vicky Walz of Vancouver. He also had a fiancée, Madeline DaMore, according to The Columbian newspaper.
Walz was the only Washington state native among the seven fallen soldiers, and as such, Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered all state flags flown at half-staff in his honor last Thursday.
Kris Sherman, The News Tribune