On the mission that took their lives, Sgt. Joseph Lilly and Spc. Trevor Pinnick found and cleared two hidden bombs on a foot patrol in one of the most hostile corners of Kandahar Province.
No one can say for sure who might have died or been maimed had the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers missed those explosives.
Their fortune broke when the next bomb hit them June 12 in Kandahar’s Panjwai District. Pinnick died that day; Lilly succumbed to his wounds two days later at a hospital in Kandahar.
Their friends and family members gathered Wednesday at Lewis-McChord to honor Lilly and Pinnick, knowing their sacrifices spared others the grief they’ve endured over the past month.
“Were it not for their contributions and sacrifices, dozens more soldiers would not be here to continue the fight,” their commander, Lt. Col. Rory Crooks of the 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment, wrote in remarks read at the memorial service.
Those words someday might help Lilly’s son Alexander or Pinnick’s daughter Melody cope with the deaths of their fathers. Both soldiers grew up in the Midwest and left behind young families.
On Wednesday, Crooks’ letter reminded the families that Lilly, 25, and Pinnick, 20, volunteered for assignments as combat engineers, a dangerous job that calls on them to protect fellow service members by disabling disguised explosives in frightening places.
“By definition (combat engineers) are attracted to the most lethal areas the Army sends its soldiers,” Crooks wrote.
The soldiers worked out of Forward Operating Base Masum Ghar in Panjwai. It’s considered home ground for the Taliban, which is putting up a fierce fight there this summer, commanders say.
A sniper shot Lilly three weeks before his death. The bullet pierced the sergeant’s neck. His commander called the shot’s failure to kill Lilly “miraculous.”
Capt. Christopher Scott saw Lilly recovering at Kandahar Air Field, the massive base and logistics hub for soldiers in southern Afghanistan. Lilly “was itching to get back” to his unit, Scott said.
Weeks later, the Army’s top general in Kandahar Province visited a dying Lilly to give the sergeant a second Purple Heart.
“Where did we get such men?” Maj. Gen. James Huggins asked, according to Lt. Col. Crooks’ account of the visit.
Lilly, from Flint, Mich., joined the Army in 2005 and deployed to Iraq with the 3rd Brigade in 2009-10.
Pinnick, from Lawrenceville, Ill., enlisted in August 2010. This was his first deployment.
Friends remembered them as caring peers. Spc. Gregory Ferguson met Lilly several years ago and sought him out at Lewis-McChord when he needed to talk through his combat experiences. Lilly would lift Ferguson’s spirits.
“Sgt Lilly was the person I would go to when I was dealing with things that happened on my first deployment,” Ferguson said.
Soldiers loved working with Pinnick because of his playfulness and his “quiet enthusiasm.” Crooks called Pinnick “a godsend” to his platoon because of his positive attitude.
Spc. Benjamin Schoonover met Pinnick in basic training. They made a connection right away. They’d cover for each other when one wanted to hide out and take a nap.
Later, Pinnick showed Schoonover the ropes at Lewis-McChord when Schoonover was assigned here.
“He was a true friend and a great soldier,” Schoonover said.