Service honors Fort Lewis’ fallen soldiers

FORT LEWIS – Several hundred friends and relatives of six Stryker brigade soldiers killed in the bombing of a dining tent in Mosul, Iraq, filled the seats and bleachers in an Army gymnasium Wednesday to honor the fallen heroes.

“All six of these men answered a higher calling,” Maj. Timothy Gauthier said. “When the nation asked, ‘Who shall I send? Who shall go for us?’ they answered and said, ‘Here I am.’ … Not for personal gain or for money, not for any reason other than that they were needed.”

Gauthier said he could hear the anguish in the voice of a Stryker brigade colonel who called to tell him about the attack, and how he was near Capt. William W. Jacobsen Jr. when the explosion ripped through the tent. “He sounded as if he had lost his own son,” Gauthier said.

Jacobsen, 31, an infantry officer and company commander from Charlotte, N.C., was one of 14 U.S. soldiers killed Dec. 21 when a suicide bomber walked into a mess tent in Mosul packed with soldiers having lunch.

The militant Ansar al-Sunnah Army has claimed responsibility for the attack, the deadliest yet at a U.S. military base in Iraq. In all, 22 people were killed and dozens wounded.

Jacobsen was a doting father, devoted husband and a fierce warrior, who “in the thick of the fight … gave direction and confidence to those around him,” Gauthier said.

Capt. David Barbuto made the crowd chuckle when he said he looked up to Jacobsen, and “not just because he was 2 inches taller than me.” Then he choked back tears as he said, “I would gladly trade places with Bill, having him talk about me instead.”

Framed photos of each soldier were arrayed on the stage, each accompanied by a pair of combat boots and an M-16 rifle.

Five of the rifles were topped with camouflage helmets. A black cavalry-style hat honored Sgt. Darren D. VanKomen, a 33-year-old supply specialist in the brigade’s 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment. VanKomen grew up in the Lewiston, Idaho, area and recently hailed from Bluefield, W. Va.

VanKomen – or “Sgt. V,” as most of his comrades called him – was known for his painstaking attention to detail.

“He would work all night” making sure the right paperwork had been filed for the equipment soldiers needed, Capt. Vincent Maykovich said.

“I know the good Lord has a special plan for people like Staff Sgt. VanKomen. If they have a supply route, he is running it,” Maykovich said.

Staff Sgt. Robert S. Johnson always knew he wanted to be in the military and joined the Army straight out of high school, said his cousin, Patrick Nevers, an Army medic who recently wrapped up a tour of duty at nearby Madigan Army Medical Center.

Johnson, 23, was a chemical operations specialist from Castro Valley, Calif. His cousin called him a stickler for detail who loved basketball, football and all kinds of music, from hip hop to classical.

He was proud to be a soldier and proud of his mission, 1st Sgt. Carlon Addison said. “He felt he was making a difference in the lives of the people in Iraq.”

Spc. Jonathan Castro, 21, was a combat engineer from Corona, Calif., who built his own motorized minibikes and dreamed of setting up a beachfront shop one day.

Pfc. Lionel Ayro, 22, of Jeanerette, La., was a combat engineer and the fastest runner in his company. Sgt. Efrain Rodriguez remembers trying – and failing – to keep up with him during a two-mile run Ayro finished in just under 11 minutes.

Staff Sgt. Julian S. Melo, 47, a supply specialist from Brooklyn, N.Y., joined the Army 12 years ago. A native of Panama, he often bragged about his wife and son, and was the type of man his fellow soldiers turned to when they needed a job done, Capt. David Iannuccilli said.

After all the eulogies, two musicians played “Amazing Grace,” and the soldiers were honored with a 21-gun salute.

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