Fort Carson’s top general saluted the coffins of fallen soldiers from the post at a Delaware Air Force base Tuesday morning as details trickled out about some of the eight killed in a weekend battle in Afghanistan.
The flag-draped coffins were carried by Army pallbearers from a cargo jet that brought them on the last leg of a journey from the valley in eastern Afghanistan where as many as 200 insurgents led an assault on a compound held by the 4th Brigade Combat Team Saturday morning.
Eight soldiers died in the daylong fight that followed. The Americans fought fiercely to regain ground they lost in what is quickly becoming known as one of the most furious battles seen in eight years of fighting in Afghanistan.
The names of six men who died were released by officials at Dover Air Force Base on Tuesday. Full identification of the soldiers killed will be released by the Defense Department, but that was still pending on Tuesday.
About 50 family members watched rites at the base. The quiet ceremony was punctuated only by the sound of a crying child. Maj. Gen. David Perkins, who commands Fort Carson, saluted each coffin. In the show of respect, he was flanked by Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Dailey, the post’s top enlisted soldier.
It was the largest single loss of life for the post since Vietnam. And the shock waves from that loss were hitting full force as friends and family members of some of the men who died began telling of the lives lost.
• Spc. Stephan Lee Mace
Spc. Stephan Lee Mace, 21, was remembered as a boy who always seemed to have a smile on his face and loved sports, wildlife and the outdoors and simply joking with his friends and teachers in the tiny northern Virginia town of Purcellville where he grew up.
“He was very big into sports,” said Vanessa Adelson, his mother, after an emotional trip to Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del., where his body was returned. “He played baseball, basketball, football and raced motorcycles.”
Mace also had a deep love of his family and country — a patriotism he learned from his grandfather, who served in the CIA during the Vietnam War, Adelson said.
“My father raised us to believe you have a duty to your country,” she said. “Stephan believed that, too. You earn your rights and you should serve your country.”
Bridget Roth, who taught Mace fifth grade at Hillsboro Elementary School, recalled him as a student who “came in the classroom with a smile on his face and he kept that smile all year long.”
But it was his positive attitude toward life that stands out in her mind.
“I’ll never forget sitting at Stephan’s baseball games at a small field outside of Hillsboro,” Roth said. “He was just 10 then. I’d usually sit with his mom and grandmother, laughing and enjoying such a happy, enthusiastic young man.”
Mace attended Loudoun Valley High School in 2003-05 where he was known as “a pretty pleasant kid,” said Sam Gross, assistant principal at Loudoun.
He said Mace decided to get his general education degree and forgo his senior year to expedite his entry in the Army.
“Stephan had a passion for the military,” Gross said. “History and the military. He had goals in life and it was the military. It was a passion that went deep within him.”
Adelson said she last saw her son Sept. 1 when he took his backpack and returned to his squad in Afghanistan after a 15-day leave.
“There was a peace about him,” she said. “He told me many times: ‘I trust everybody in my unit to cover my back.’ He loved those boys he fought with like brothers.”
She said he showed no fear as he returned to the remote outpost where he later died.
"He was so confident," she said. "He said he was ready to get back there. The day he left, he took his backpack, gave me a hug goodbye and said 'I'll be OK, Mom.' He was not afraid."
Besides his mother and her husband, Richard Adelson, Mace is survived by his father and stepmother, Larry and Deb Mace, as well as brothers Matthew, Bradley and Christopher, 17, who just graduated from boot bamp at Fort Sill, Okla., and will be moving on to artillery school, his mother said.
"He had to be just like his brother," Adelson said.
Purcellville, a village of about 6,200, is about 50 miles northwest of Washington D.C.
• Sgt. Joshua Kirk
Sgt. Joshua Kirk was originally from Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
He was 30. He is survived by his wife, Meg, and his 2-year-old daughter, Kensington. His wife asked friends not to comment, and surviving family members in Idaho could not be reached.
• Pfc. Kevin Thomson
Pfc. Kevin Thomson was remembered as a goofy, spirited kid who was close with his mother and had a group of lifelong friends. Thomson, 22, grew up in Reno, Nev., and attended Wooster High School there.
Jessica Seltzer had been friends with Thomson since elementary school and the two began dating this spring, she said.
“Everyone loved him,” Seltzer said. “He could make anyone smile no matter how bad their day was.”
Michael Obi, Thomson's best friend, said he could be a prankster. When they were roommates, Obi said, Thomson loved nothing more than waking him up in the middle of the night with an air horn.
"When he left, I found that air horn and I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away," Obi said. "I’ll probably have it forever."
Above all, Obi said, Thomson was someone who valued friendship.
"Kevin, he never had materials things," Obi said. "He never had any money. He never had a car - he walked everywhere. He appreciated the people he had around him. He let you know that you were tops on his list."
Thomson worked at a Reno grocery store after graduating from high school, then enlisted in the Army in 2008.
“The last time I saw him was right before he left,” said Allen Nelson, a longtime friend. “He seemed to be pretty excited he was doing something with his life and headed in the right direction.”
Seltzer said Thomson frequently e-mailed from Afghanistan, but didn’t provide too many details.
“He would never tell me how bad it was,” she said. “I don't think he wanted me to worry.”
• Spc. Christopher T. Griffin
In the small community of Kincheloe, Mich., people are mourning the loss of a man known for his infectious smile.
Spc. Christopher T. Griffin graduated in 2004 from Rudyard High School in a close-knit class of 53 students.
Tom McKee, a classmate who is now a student teacher at Rudyard High, said the whole town knew that Griffin would someday don his nation’s uniform.
“He always wanted to join the service,” McKee said. “Any time we played, we were Army men.”
At Rudyard, Griffin played football and wrestled. He was known as a generous kid with an easy laugh.
“He was a quiet person who had a great sense of humor and always smiled,” McKee said. “In the 15 years I knew him, I never heard him say a negative word.”
A rabid Green Bay Packers fan, he showed versatility on the high school gridiron. “If he had to learn a new position in a day, he would do it,” McKee said.
Griffin visited his home town after he’d joined the Army. McKee said he appeared content with the decision.
“He said he was doing what he loved to do.”
• Spc. Michael P. Scusa
Michael P. Scusa would have turned 23 on Monday. He left behind his wife, Alyssa, and 1-year-old son, Connor, who live here, and his mom, Cynthia Woodard, who lives in New Jersey.
No one answered the door at his home in the Widefield area on Tuesday, but there was a wreath with his name on it hanging from the door and a yellow ribbon tied around the tree in the front yard.
He last logged into his My Space page on May 25 and said he was missing his wife and son.
Valerie Davis, a math teacher at Lower Cape May High School in New Jersey, remembered her former student as a “sweetheart” who talked passionately about his drive to join the military and serve his country.
“It was like he was in the military in class, too,” she said. “It was always, ‘Yes, ma’am, no ma’am.’ He was a boy any mom would be proud to have. I’m just heartbroken.”
Scusa returned to the school during a break from his tour in Afghanistan and took the time to chat with students and answer questions about life in the warzone. He seemed to choose his answers carefully, she said.
“He made me feel it wasn’t as bad as it was,” she said. “I guess he wasn’t telling me everything.”
• Vernon W. Martin
The body of Vernon W. Martin arrived at Dover Air Force Base on Tuesday. Little about him could be found, apart from the military listing his hometown as Savannah, Ga.
Reporters Bill McKeown, Tom Roeder, Maria St. Louis-Sanchez, Lance Benzel and Andy Wineke and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Gazette reporters Bill Vogrin, Maria St. Louis-Sanchez and Andrew Wineke contributed to this report