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Soldier killed in Afghanistan was 'a shining star,' family says

The first five words from the Army chaplain hit like a ton of bricks.

"I regret to inform you…"

As the grief set in, Corey Lederer said he almost missed what came next, but he already filled in the blanks. John Pelham, his 22-year-old brother-in-law who served in the U.S. Army, had been killed in action.

"Nothing prepares you to hear those words," Lederer, who is married to one of Pelham’s sisters, said Friday. "It's still hard to accept that someone as big, strong and full of life as John is gone.

"We’re all still trying to figure out how we begin the healing process.”

Spc. Pelham and Sgt. First Class Roberto C. Skelt, 41, of York, Fla., were killed by enemy gunfire Wednesday in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan, the U.S. Department of Defense announced Friday. Pelham and Skelt were part of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, based in Fort Bragg, N.C. and were supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

Pelham’s family, including his mother, Dawn, and father, Wendall, was informed of his death on Wednesday.

Pelham was a "220-pound teddy bear," who was athletically gifted, had steady enthusiasm and a strong sense of integrity, Lederer said.

"He lived with an energy that most of us could only dream of having," he said. "He had such a can-do attitude that whatever he put his mind to, there was no doubt he would go above and beyond to reach his goals.

"He truly was a shining star."

Born the fourth of six children, Pelham was named after his grandfather, John, who was an Army colonel, Lederer said. One of Pelham's uncles also had been in the armed services.

"The military was just in his blood," Lederer said.

Pelham, who often went by his middle name, Alex, spent part of his childhood in Tigard, Ore., later moved with his family to the Cedar Hills area and attended Sunset High School.

Pelham had some struggles with school, Lederer said. Pelham spent part of his junior year of high school at the Oregon Youth Challenge Program, an Oregon National Guard program for at-risk teens based in Bend. He thrived in the structure, Lederer said, was a "star cadet" while there and began seriously thinking of joining the military then.

Pelham returned to Sunset High School the next year. While at the school, he played quarterback on the football team and pitcher and third base on the baseball team, Lederer said. He also played soccer and was part of the choir, according to the Beaverton, Ore., School District.

After graduating from high school in 2010, Pelham spent a year enrolled at the College of the Redwoods, a community college in Eureka, Calif., where he played baseball, Lederer said. He enlisted in the Army in 2011.

Pelham was recruited into the special forces out of boot camp, Lederer said. He was deployed to Afghanistan for about six months in 2012 and began a second tour of duty in 2013.

Despite being on active duty, Pelham remained devoted to his family, Lederer said. He contacted them often and never missed a Christmas.

Pelham couldn't say much about what he did in the army because most of it was classified, Lederer said. He would tell family members that he was gearing up to go on a mission, but couldn't explain where or any other details.

The family would wish him good luck and hope for the best, Lederer said. Any concerns they had were lessened by Pelham's faith in his colleagues.

"He knew he was with the best guys in the world and he made sure we knew that," Lederer said. "There was a bit of apprehension on his part a few times, but he was never scared."

Pelham had a steady girlfriend and planned to marry her one day, according to Lederer. Pelham hoped to become a U.S. Marshal.

Pelham's body was flown to Delaware and the family is still finalizing details to bring him back to Portland for a memorial.

"He truly loved serving in the military and his country, it was his element," Lederer said. "We lost a hero, but we know that one day, we'll see him again."

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