Two noncommissioned officers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord left their hearts in the states with their wives and newborn babies when they hit the ground in Afghanistan six months ago.
Sgts. Michael Knapp and Jabraun Knox would light up whenever someone asked about their children: Knapp’s 9-month-old daughter or Knox’s 6-month-old son.
They fought hard from their artillery battery in eastern Afghanistan, knowing any rocket or mortar attack on their base could kill or wound soldiers and devastate Army families like theirs.
“Between the two of them, there was nothing they couldn’t accomplish,” said Sgt. Timothy Mills, a peer from their unit, the 17th Fires Brigade.
He spoke at a service Thursday in honor of the young dads who died together May 18 when an enemy rocket slammed into their howitzer battery. Two privates in the platoon were wounded and sent to an Army hospital in San Antonio.
The deaths of Knapp and Knox were the first in a cluster of seven fatal casualties suffered by the Lewis-McChord community in Afghanistan over a three-week stretch.
Their memorial service in an Army chapel is the first of several expected in the coming weeks, the result of thousands of local troops facing enemy forces in Afghanistan’s spring fighting season. Washington state’s military installations had more combat casualties in May than in any single month since July 2010.
The ceremony was held the same day Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived in Afghanistan to confer with military leaders on plans to withdraw troops and deal with rising violence. One day earlier, Afghan civilians suffered their deadliest day of 2012, caused by two suicide bombings and a coalition airstrike that was condemned by Afghan officials.
At the base south of Tacoma, soldiers remembered Knapp and Knox as much for the love they showed their families as for their service in uniform.
“In life, these men and their families were close friends,” said Lt. Col. Charles Roede, their battalion commander. “In death, now they remain linked through the bonds of grief and through the memories we share.”
Knapp, 28, of Overland Park, Kan., joined the Army in 2003 and had deployed twice to Iraq and once to Kosovo before his tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Knox, 23, of Indianapolis enlisted in 2009 and deployed to Iraq in 2009-10 with his Lewis-McChord artillery brigade.
Their company commander, Capt. Ross Warren, remembered them as solid leaders who set a tone for their unit.
“No matter the challenge, they kept the morale of the soldiers in their charge high,” Warren wrote in remarks that were read at the memorial service. “Through jokes, pranks, mentorship, and when necessary, a kick in the ass, they kept their soldiers focused and ready.”
The artillery battery is charged with firing 155mm rounds at enemy targets, often after insurgents take shots at NATO posts. It’s stationed in Asadabad, near the border with Pakistan.
“Sgt. Knox especially took every fire mission personally,” Warren wrote. “He considered the safety of any soldiers being attacked in range of the guns his responsibility. The speed and accuracy of their rounds protected fellow soldiers and devastated the enemy, and they knew it.”
Roede recently visited the two privates wounded in the same attack. Each had questions about Knox and Knapp even as they endured their own trials. They continued asking questions about the widows.
Mills, the fallen soldiers’ friend and fellow sergeant, recalled Thursday how he was struck by two encounters when he escorted Knox’s remains home to the Midwest.
In one encounter, a child asked how God could take Knox from his family. Mills told the girl that Knox and Knapp could live forever as long as she and their families kept sharing memories and talking about them.
In the second encounter, a group of women asked Mills how he and other soldiers could continually go overseas to fight a war with which they might not agree. He told them, “It’s not for politics. It’s for friendship. It’s for your brothers and sisters in harm.”
“Sgt. Knox and Sgt. Knapp – both of them – cared for their brothers and sisters and put themselves in harm’s way,” Mills said Thursday.The Washington Post contributed to this report.