Army Sgt. Michael Ristau was the cowboy, confident and steadfast. Spc. Sterling Wyatt was the student and teacher, giving of himself to improve others’ lives.
To the men who served with them, they were both first-rate soldiers whose abilities instilled confidence in their commanders and the men who fought beside them in Afghanistan.
Hundreds of mourners gathered Wednesday to hear about men who had different backgrounds but shared a bond of service to country. Ristau, of Cascade, Iowa, and Wyatt, of Columbia, Mo., died in combat two days apart in Afghanistan last month.
Although that war is winding down, the memorial, the latest in a series held at the base this summer, is evidence that the continuing violence continues to take a toll locally. Twenty-one soldiers assigned to Lewis-McChord have died there this year.
Ristau, a 25-year-old married father of two, died July 13 from the blast of an improvised explosive device, nearly eight years to the day after he enlisted in the Army as an infantryman.
He rode in rodeos throughout the region, and his attitude didn’t change when he exchanged his cowboy hat for a Kevlar helmet.
“He was remarkable in staring down any obstacle that made the mistake of getting between him and where he wanted to go,” wrote Lt. Col. Jim Dunivan, commander of the squadron Ristau served under, in remarks read at the service.
Capt. Joseph Mickley, commander of Ristau’s company, recalled Ristau was driving a vehicle under Mickley’s supervision last year at the Yakima Training Center. Mickley wasn’t sure of his bearings in the brutal terrain, and it didn’t help that they appeared to be driving off the side of a mountain.
A nervous Mickley looked over to Ristau to see him wearing a big grin, with one hand on the steering window and an elbow perched on the window. “Don’t worry, sir,” the junior soldier said. “I got this.”
“I can’t help but laugh as I remember his smiling face as he gave me my first thrill ride out at Yakima,” Mickley said.
Wyatt, 21, also was killed in a blast of a roadside bomb July 11 after training Afghan security forces to avoid such a fate. He had served in the Army less than two years.
His commander, Capt. John Meyers, noted that Wyatt always rose to the occasion.
“He made sure the training was the best the Afghan police had ever seen,” Meyers wrote in remarks read at the memorial.
Wyatt also served as a gun team leader, a position typically reserved for a more senior enlisted soldier, the captain wrote.
The soldier loved learning about historical military battles and other cultures – he had travelled to Japan – and led a Bible study during his deployment.
“I challenge each and every one of you to remember Spc. Wyatt,” Staff Sgt. Chad Boyd said. “When you see our nation’s flag, remember the sacrifice of soldiers and families for freedoms that we all have. Spc. Wyatt you may be gone, but you will never be forgotten.”