Three soldiers killed in Afghanistan remembered in Vicenza
Soldiers fire off a salute Thursday at the end of a memorial ceremony on Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy, for three fallen members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Spc. James Austin Justice, Pfc. Andrew James Keller and Pfc. Shane William Cantu were killed in separate incidents in Afghanistan. Kent Harris/Stars and Stripes
Stars and Stripes
VICENZA, Italy — Spc. James Austin Justice, Pfc. Andrew James Keller and Pfc. Shane William Cantu were remembered Thursday for the things they had in common and the characteristics that made them unique.
Family members, friends and colleagues attended a memorial ceremony on Caserma Ederle for the three soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team who were killed recently in separate incidents in Afghanistan.
The common elements weren’t hard to find. All were in their early 20s and were remembered for their smiles. Justice and Cantu each left behind five siblings. Keller and Cantu were high school football stars. All three distinguished themselves enough to be selected to participate in the nine-month deployment, when about a third of their peers stayed behind at home bases in Vicenza and Germany.
But friends talked about what made each of them special.
“James strived and settled for nothing but the best,” said Pfc. James Romanello of Justice, a 21-year-old from North Carolina. Romanello recalled his friend’s joyous outbursts and “doing the clapping thing when he gets excited.”
Justice died Aug. 17 at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany after suffering wounds sustained during a route clearance patrol on Aug. 14. He leaves behind his wife, Sissy, and three daughters: Harley, Laura and Breonna; his parents, Randall and Melissa Justice; sisters Cailee and Lisa; and brothers Josh, Joe and Roger.
Capt. Richard Gasperini, rear detachment commander for the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, noted that Justice’s first flight of any kind came during his first jump during Airborne training.
Keller, 22, was from Oregon. Pfc. Jonathan Smith said he received the same sunny greeting from Keller every morning on base.
“One smile from Andrew could change your whole day,” he said.
Keller was killed Aug. 15 by small-arms fire in Charkh district in Logar province. He is survived by his parents, Jeffrey and Kimberly Keller, and a brother, Derek.
Capt. Bradley Benjamin, the rear detachment commander for the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, read a list of tributes from fellow soldiers about Keller, named a team leader by his platoon leader. One of them was from Cantu, who recalled in a ceremony in Afghanistan that his first impression of Keller was that he had a head the size of a basketball.
Cantu, 20, of Michigan, died 13 days later in Charkh from shrapnel wounds. He, like Keller, started college before deciding to enter the military, Benjamin said.
Fellow soldiers remembered debates with Cantu, with one of them saying he gave up. “Don’t argue with this guy,” the soldier said of Cantu. “He was raised by women.”
Cantu is survived by his parents, Mike and Jennifer Clark, and five sisters: Shiann, Jordyn, Shanel, Breann and Haley.
Sgt. 1st Class Matias Luis said the only time he recalled not seeing a smile on Cantu’s face was when he was told he wasn’t going to Afghanistan. That eventually changed when additional spots opened up.
Family members of Justice and Keller were among those attending the ceremony in the post chapel.