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Remembering a fallen soldier
Scripps Howard News Service


June 13, 2005

He was one of the first soldiers I saw when I finally climbed from the shattered Humvee. He grabbed me by the right shoulder, looked me up and down, seeing if I was still in one piece, and started laughing.

jpg Staff Sgt. Justin Vasquez

Staff Sgt. Justin Vasquez, 26, of Manzanola, Colo., a member of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's Thunder Squadron, was killed in Iraq on June 5, 2005, when a bomb exploded next to his vehicle.
SHNS photo by Todd Heisler

That was two months ago. I hope the roadside bomb that killed Staff Sgt. Justin Vasquez on June 5 took him quickly, without suffering.

Word of his death and those of two other soldiers from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's Lightning Troop, Thunder Squadron - the Fort Carson, Colo., troops with whom Rocky Mountain News photographer Todd Heisler and I had embedded for a month earlier this spring - arrived overnight last Tuesday from several members of the squadron.

They knew Todd and I had grown close to Vasquez during our time in Iraq. They didn't want us to learn of his death from the newswires.

He was 26 years old.

I guess I always knew that having spent so much time in a war zone with more than 60 soldiers, 24 hours a day, I'd have to write this column. But improbable and illogical as it might seem, I prayed their luck would hold.

Every morning since returning home I would rise and check the overnight news, praying I would not see a name I recognized. Until last Tuesday, I did not.

The soldiers who e-mailed about Vasquez and the others, well, you could almost see them crying as they typed. Thunder Squadron had been spared such tragedy since it arrived in Baghdad in early April.

Lightning Troop, our guys, I had hoped, were invincible. To lose a man, particularly three, whose faces you can still see, I must tell you, is almost beyond words.

I take a measure of solace in knowing Vasquez died doing what he felt called to do. I remember interviewing him outside of our tent in Kuwait, in the weeks before the convoy moved into Iraq. He told me how the Army had surely rescued him, given him a purpose in this life.

He'd grown up in tiny Manzanola, Colo. He wasn't, he said, particularly adept at school. He saw little future for himself.

"I'll be honest, when I graduated Manzanola High, I didn't have a clue about what I wanted to be. The Army was right there. The day I graduated, I joined."

The Army, he told me, disciplined him. It matured him.

This was his second tour in Iraq. He'd re-enlisted for another six years and was promoted to staff sergeant just before the Armored Cav returned home from its first deployment to Iraq in March 2003. This time, he was given command of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

More than half the men in his squad on this tour were new recruits, and I can still see and hear him reassuring the new guys that they would be OK, building the confidence he knew they would need to survive.

Pfc. Brian Ulbrich, 23, of Chapmanville, W.Va., and Spc. Eric J. Poelman, 21, of Racine, Wis., were the other 3rd ACR troops to perish June 5. The three men died together.

"I know my son died trying to protect those men," Vasquez's mother, Vicki Bosley, said from her home in Manzanola. "From the day he was born, he was always very outgoing, always worried about others first."

She recalls the last time she saw her son. It was at Fort Carson, days before Thunder Squadron deployed overseas.

"He hugged me, looked right at me and said, 'It's OK, Mom. This is my job.' I was so proud of him. And I miss him so much," Bosley said.

Her son, she was told, died rushing to the aid of others riding in a Humvee that had been hit by a roadside bomb.

He had done the exact same thing for us two months ago.

But this time a second bomb was triggered.

Vasquez and I became friends in a very short period of time.

His Bradley was traveling just ahead of our Humvee when a roadside bomb went off under us on the early Sunday morning of April 10.

"Check your (crotch)," I remember him saying with a loud laugh after he reached me, his hand still on my shoulder.

Vasquez walked me back to his fighting vehicle, cursing all the way.

He could not abide an enemy that would not confront you directly, he said over and over.

And then he sat me inside his Bradley, handed me a bottle of water, patted my shoulder and waited for me to come out of shock.

It was Vasquez, when he returned from that patrol, who would come by our room every night to assure us that we were OK. He and his roommate, Sgt. Gary Baty, fairly adopted us in the days that passed.

On our last night in Iraq, we ate dinner with Vasquez.

And he repeated then what he had told me that first day: How he, too, eventually wanted to be an FBI agent.

The Army, he said, had given him a good taste for chasing down bad guys.

"Yeah, I'm thinking I might be a career guy now," he told me then. "In 2010 (when his enlistment would end), I'll have 14 years in. I'll still be a young guy. And the FBI will still be there."

Godspeed, Sergeant.


Contact Bill Johnson of the Rocky Mountain News

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