RICHMOND, Va. — Sgt. Aaron X. Wittman lived life his way, on his terms.
When he decided to pursue something, he went after it head on, often accompanied by an infectious smile and optimistic personality, both of which were contagious, according to friends and family.
If a situation was tense, Wittman knew how to lighten it. It wasn’t that he took the circumstances lightly, but he knew what to say or could crack a joke that put those around him at ease.
“One thing I always liked about Aaron, he was always one to bring a smile to people’s faces when the situation was a little tough, a little frustrating,” said Rusty Beckner, Wittman’s classmate at L.C. Bird High School in Chesterfield County.
Wittman, a decorated 28-year-old Army sergeant from Chester, died in Afghanistan last week when his unit came under attack while on mounted patrol in the Khogyani District, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. He is the first U.S. combat casualty of 2013.
He was an infantryman assigned to 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team and 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga. He had previously been awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Funeral services are pending.
Wittman, a graduate of The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, knew how to maintain that cool-under-pressure demeanor. As an upperclassman, he worked with incoming freshmen, teaching them how to perform and improve themselves, said Coast Guard Lt. Ryan W. Kilgo, who was in Lima Company with Wittman in college.
“Aaron was a sharp cadet,” Kilgo recalled. “He was someone you’d want to emulate. He worked with the underclassmen to build the same character and skill sets that he had.”
Wittman’s lighter side was not stifled by the regimented military atmosphere at The Citadel. High school classmate Patrick Lloyd recalled that Wittman often posted videos on the Internet of Wittman and others lip-synching songs.
“It was always a good time to be around Aaron. I can’t ever think of a time when I was around Aaron when he wasn’t smiling or happy,” Lloyd said. “He was always a positive influence on people’s lives.”
Wittman was nearly two months into a second tour of duty — a nine-month deployment — in Afghanistan when he was killed. His first tour came in 2007 when his South Carolina National Guard unit was activated during his senior year at The Citadel for a 12-month tour in Afghanistan and deployed near the Pakistan border.
“He had a choice and I basically begged him to stay in school — there will be a time for this later,” his mother, Carol Wittman, recalled. “He was like, ‘No. I made a commitment with these guys and we’re going to go together. I’m not backing out.’ ”
Military service is no stranger to the Wittman family. He is the youngest of three children to join the armed forces. Older brother Nicholas is an officer in the Marine Corps and his sister Amber was a corpsman in the Navy. All three Wittman children have been deployed to the Middle East.
It should come as no surprise that they chose the military after growing up around the world as their father, Duane L. Wittman, a retired Army officer, changed assignments. Wittman and his siblings lived in Saudi Arabia for four years while their father was stationed there, including a stint during the Gulf War.
Neither Duane Wittman nor Carol Wittman, who served three years in the Army herself, ever tried to dissuade their children from military service. Their nomadic childhood gave them an understanding of the world around them.
Wittman had opportunities to go to officer candidate school, but he wanted to do it when he was ready. It was something that he was considering once he returned from his deployment, his parents said.
The news of Wittman’s death hit hard the close-knit community at L.C. Bird, where he graduated in 2003 and his mother works in the main office. Wittman wrestled and played soccer for the Skyhawks.
Former wrestling coach Paul Rafferty described Wittman as a good role model and team member. Rafferty noted that he saw Wittman and his brother at a party last year and “I was lucky enough to tell him how proud I was of him.”
Wittman loved surf fishing along the beaches of Charleston, S.C. That was his special paradise, said childhood friend Army 1st Lt. David Pickett.
He also had a creative streak, whether it was painting portraits of the family’s dogs, building a raft to go fishing on a lake or constructing a homemade cannon.
“He had an infectious personality; he was a person everybody wanted to be around,” Pickett said, “just a happy guy, one of those people who is never upset.”
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