WüRZBURG, Germany — The “DFAC Mama” is gone.

More than 500 1st Infantry Division soldiers gathered in the Leighton Barracks theater Wednesday morning to pay tribute to Sgt. 1st Class Sarah Windley, 51, of the 101st Military Intelligence Battalion.

Windley died March 10 of complications from surgery shortly after returning from a yearlong tour in Iraq.

Her friends recalled the strict but loving way she ran her dining facility.

“She was a selfless leader who ruled with an iron fist, but had a heart of gold,” said Capt. Leif Protze, her commander with the 101st MI’s headquarters company.

Windley grew up in a non-Army family in the Army town of Fayetteville, N.C., one of six sisters. For years a devoted cook for friends and family, she fulfilled a dream by joining the Army as a food service specialist in 1987 at age 33 shortly before reaching the Army’s maximum enlistment age, said 1st Sgt. Robert Kelly, a good friend.

“She wanted a change of pace,” he said. “She wanted to serve her country.”

Over the years, she was stationed in Friedberg, Germany; Fort Stewart, Ga.; and South Korea, before settling in at the 299th Forward Support Battalion in Schweinfurt, Germany, in 2001. She joined the 101st MI shortly after it arrived in Iraq in March 2004, where she took charge of the dining facility at Forward Operating Base Danger, the division’s headquarters in Tikrit.

Windley impressed many with her laughter and her faith. Her friend Chief Warrant Officer 2 DeJuan Fountain said if he asked how she was doing, she would smile and reply, “God is good, all the time!”

He said friends called Windley a social butterfly who loved to visit with chow hall diners. But she didn’t hesitate to dress down a cook or patron who didn’t follow rules.

“Most people remembered the stern look that would remind you to clear weapon and wash your hands,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Drayton Gilyard, her friend and minister, “but they also remember her warm smile.”

Even on the hottest days, Windley refused rides from her distant living quarters to the DFAC at FOB Danger, calling it her “time alone with God.”

A few weeks after her unit came home in February, she entered a German hospital for minor surgery and died unexpectedly. Her friends, scattered on block leave, learned of the loss of their “DFAC Mama” when they came home.

“She was loved by all,” Kelly said. “She provided the one thing we all need, and that’s family.”

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