Company B bids a tearful goodbye to fallen friends
By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 17, 2010
FORWARD OPERATING BASE HOWZ-E-MADAD, Afghanistan — After Sunday’s suicide car bombing demolished much of their small outpost, soldiers dug with their hands for two hours, desperately clearing away rubble to reach their buried comrades.
On Friday, they honored the six soldiers who didn’t make it out alive.
Members of 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division gathered under the yellow cast of a dimly lit chow hall tent to give a final salute to Company B’s fallen soldiers, who, as their commander said, “walked the path most men couldn’t or wouldn’t dare.”
Lined up in a row at the front were six helmets and six pairs of boots.
- One for Sgt. Sean Collins.
- And one for Sgt. Willie McLawhorn.
- And Cpl. Patrick Deans.
- And Cpl. Kenneth Necochea.
- And Cpl. Derek Simonetta.
- And Cpl. Jorge Villacis.
Over and over throughout the ceremony, those names were solemnly called aloud — each time a reminder of the crushing weight of losing so many lives in one morning.
Dec. 12, 2010, “will be a day no soldier in Bravo Company will ever forget,” said Capt. David Yu, the company’s commander.
A little before 9 a.m. that day, a van rigged with explosives exploded about 30 yards from their outpost, called a strong point. Second platoon had just rotated out to Strong Point Diwar from the company’s larger outpost down the road.
It was their third day there.
After a late night of mission planning, about half the soldiers in the platoon were sleeping. Those on guard couldn’t see the van careening toward them until it was about 100 yards from the strong point, and then the driver stepped on the gas.
The massive explosion collapsed the roof of the mud-walled rooms along the northern side of the austere outpost, burying those inside.
The platoon’s leader, 1st Lt. Cory Kastl, was sleeping on his side and “was buried right off the bat,” he said earlier this week. “I couldn’t move.”
Two soldiers dug him out. He would need staples to close a wound to the back of his head and stitches over his right eye, but he sent the medic away to attend to others more gravely wounded.
“The guys were running around saving each other,” Kastl said. “My guys had pretty serious injuries they pushed through. They didn’t even know they were hurt.”
It would be hours before those unaccounted for after the attack were pulled free of the debris.
On Friday, the surviving 2nd Platoon soldiers sat in the first couple rows of chairs, some with stoic expressions but many in tears. A few buried their faces in their hands. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, and other high-ranking soldiers flew in for the ceremony and sat across the aisle.
When Yu, Kastl and two other soldiers stood at the podium next to the six boots and helmets and spoke about the men who were killed, there were sobs from 2nd Platoon, and a few moments of laughter.
Collins, 25, raised the morale of 2nd Platoon, Yu said, and Kastl praised him as a soldier who always picked up on the small details that the rest of the platoon missed. Collins could be counted on for a laugh and offered great advice, “except when it came to women,” Sgt. Lance Chaulk said, eliciting the first smiles from 2nd Platoon.
Calling him “Claw,” Kastl said McLawhorn “was everything you could ask for in a team leader.” The 23-year-old was “an up-and-comer” in the company, Yu said. And Chaulk called him “the greatest friend to have.”
Deans, 22, was McLawhorn’s battle buddy, and “you never saw those two very far apart,” Yu said. Deans “knew how to do just about anything,” Kastl said. He was the most sought-after driver and the comedian of the platoon. He would “always find a way to make a joke even in the worst conditions,” Kastl said. Deans made any situation memorable, and had dreams of becoming a crew chief, Chaulk said.
The soldiers described Villacis, 24, as a laid back, quiet professional. When “he spoke, people listened,” Kastle said. “His mere presence made us better.” Villacis, the father of three, planned on renewing his vows with his wife and wanted the platoon to be there, Spc. Francisco Rodriguez said.
Simonetta was also quiet, someone who “spoke only when something needed to be said,” Kastl said. He never really complained, saying it could be worse, Kastl said. He was “a good soldier with a big heart,” Rodriguez said. When he got home from deployment, the 21-year-old and his wife wanted to have a child.
Necochea, 21, was tough and devoted, and dedicated much of his time to mentoring the Afghan soldiers, Kastl said. He took pride in whatever he did and was always prepared for the next day, Rodriguez said.
Kastl and Yu repeated all the names again at the end of their speeches, and each, choking back tears, said it had been an honor to serve with the men.
The six soldiers died on symbolic Taliban ground just down the road from where the founder Mullah Mohammad Omar gathered 50 men in a mosque in 1994 and plotted to change the course of the country with a barrel of a gun, Lt. Col. Peter Benchoff said at the ceremony.
He spoke of how there was a clear and unbroken chain of what happened in Sangsar and the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
All of his soldiers knew about the area before deploying and were vying to be the ones to snatch it away from the Taliban as the first Coalition forces there in years. Bravo got the call and has lost nine soldiers since.
This is the second time in a month that Bravo has memorialized soldiers killed by a suicide bomber. In mid-November, Staff Sgt. Juan Rivadeneira, Cpl. Jacob Carver and Spc. Jacob Carroll were killed and three others were badly injured when a man detonated a suicide vest as they returned from a foot patrol in a new area
The dangers, Benchoff said, cannot be wished away or avoided.
“We will continue to hold this ground and then some,” he said.
Collins, McLawhorn, Deans, Simonetta, Necochea and Villacis will “watch over us,” Rodriguez said. “and still be with us on patrol.”