Years have passed since Philip Heuberger last saw Afghanistan, but not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about the soldiers who died fighting alongside him.
“They were all good men,” said the former sergeant. “You can’t run from it.”
On Saturday, he attended a Joint Base Lewis-McChord ceremony that gave him a place to run to when he wants to remember his friends from his two Afghanistan deployments with a local Stryker brigade.
The base unveiled a new memorial to soldiers who died while serving in a unit that has gone by two names: the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division and 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Heuberger, 39, served under both commands.
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The memorial pays respects to a brigade that bore that brunt of heavy fighting at the beginning of the Afghanistan surge in 2009-10 and then returned to fight again in Kandahar province two years later.
It lists 56 names of fallen soldiers on two pillars, with 41 of them dating to the period that included the first Afghanistan mission. Several of the names have asterisks next to them, meaning they did not die in combat.
It’s located in JBLM’s Memorial Grove, which is home to several monuments for combat brigades that lost soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Until now, JBLM did not have a memorial to the 5th Brigade, even though it has been stationed here since 2007.
“The names on the stone to your front are the true heroes who set aside their safety to serve a cause larger than themselves, the cause of freedom,” said 2nd Brigade Commander Col. Louis Zeisman.
For many, it was an emotional day that brought back memories of difficult times even as it provided heartening reunions for veterans and their families.
“This helps, being here with our brothers,” said Chester Curtis of Everett, who served on the ’09-10 mission with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He’s now a lobbyist with Pacific Northwest Regional Strategies.
“It’s like we never spent a minute apart,” said Nicholas Thompson, a 5th Brigade veteran who flew in Friday from Maryland.
The ceremony felt particularly overdue for families who were in the unit during its Afghanistan tour. That year, the 5th Brigade experienced hard fighting in the first weeks of its mission as its Strykers rolled into hostile parts of Kandahar province that had not seen a serious American military presence in years.
Those violent days left one lasting imprint in the South Sound when they spurred the creation of Wear Blue: Run to Remember, a now-national running group founded in DuPont by 5th Brigade families. To this day, its Saturday gatherings begin with the group’s origin story.
When the brigade returned to JBLM in the summer of 2010, the Army changed its name to 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The 5th Brigade’s contributions and sacrifices then quickly became overshadowed by 18 months of high-profile courts-martial for four of its soldiers who were connected to the unlawful killings of three Afghan civilians.
The new monument pays respects to the legacies of both deployments.
The pillar for the 5th Brigade is topped by the motto then-commander Col. Harry Tunnell chose for his soldiers: “Strike, Destroy.”
The stone for the command that became the 2nd Brigade, meanwhile, shows the motto that then-Commander Col. Barry Huggins chose, “Seize the High Ground.”
Danielle L’Heureux, an Army spouse who helped raise money for the monument, said it was important to honor both eras.
Some families from the first deployment “felt that they were forgotten, pushed aside, and not given the time and space they deserve,” she said.”
Now, the monument provides “a little bit of a closure,” Curtis said.
His remarks were echoed by a number of military family members who took heart in a ceremony they likened to an overdue homecoming.
One of them was Donna Ray, who traveled to the memorial from Fargo, North Dakota. A bomb killed her son, Sgt. Adam Ray, in February 2010.
“The memorial “proves to us it wasn’t just a job,” said Ray, 54. “He was not forgotten. They haven’t forgotten us.”
She was joined at the memorial by Daniel Nye, a close friend of her son who still seems to regret a medical condition that kept him off the battlefield on the day Ray died. He’s suffered from seizures and memory lapses over the years.
Donna Ray hugged him and kissed him when he voiced remorse for not participating in Sgt. Ray’s last patrol.
“We now have a place to pay respects to him forever,” said Nye, 28, of Longview.
At least 23 families of fallen soldiers attended the ceremony. They walked to pillars one by one and made etchings of the names on the pillars.
One of the names was Capt. Cory Jenkins, who was killed in August 2009. His widow, parents and children traveled from Arizona to join in Saturday’s ceremony.
“It’s important to come to these events, where you realize there’s someone who remembers what you lost, because you remember every day,” said his widow, Brooke Jenkins Walters, 33.