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Memorial services at Caserma Ederle for servicemembers killed in Afghanistan have been all too common this year. Sixteen members of the Southern European Task Force (Airborne) have died since the unit took command of Combined Joint Task Force-76 in March.
Memorial services at Caserma Ederle for servicemembers killed in Afghanistan have been all too common this year. Sixteen members of the Southern European Task Force (Airborne) have died since the unit took command of Combined Joint Task Force-76 in March. (Kent Harris / S&S)

The scene is a familiar one.

Leaders from the Southern European Task Force (Airborne) Rear Detachment fill in the front rows of the base chapel on the left side. On the right, small groups of women sit together, many clutching tissues to dab at reddened eyes. Somber community members, whispering in English or Italian, fill in the middle and back rows. Surrounding them is a sea of green-clad servicemembers with the occasional desert-camouflage uniform sticking out.

Capt. John McDougall starts playing the bagpipes.

Sixteen soldiers based at Caserma Ederle have died since SETAF took command of Combined Joint Task Force-76 in Afghanistan on March 15. Sixteen soldiers in less than eight months from a community with an active-duty population of a little more than 3,000.

“The memorials … they’re certainly not easy,” said Shannon Horn, leader of the Family Readiness Group for Battery D, 319th Field Artillery Regiment.

Her husband, Capt. Ryker Horn, is the unit’s commander in Afghanistan. “It does make you think, ‘This could happen to any of us.’ I think that’s why you see the outpouring of sympathy and support.”

Lt. Col. Doug Hudson, chaplain for U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza, said it’s understandable to express both empathy and sympathy at such times.

“Memorial services, I think, are quite draining,” he said. “They’re difficult for all of us.”

Some are more difficult than others. Twice, the community has held services for four soldiers killed at the same time. The first four were killed in a helicopter crash April 6. The second group by a roadside bomb Aug. 21.

Capt. Robert Curtis, the rear detachment commander for the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, lost a close friend in 1st Lt. Joshua Hyland.

“It’s a terrible feeling when it happens,” Curtis said. “A very gut-wrenching feeling when you know someone who’s passed away.”

Still, Curtis said, that’s life in the infantry: “This is part of the job. Death is going to happen.”

Horn said spouses know what they’re getting into when they marry a servicemember — or they learn very quickly. She said thinking about the potential danger her husband is facing would drive her crazy.

“I mostly don’t dwell on it,” she said. “He’s just at work.”

It’s that kind of attitude, combined with what all of those interviewed characterize as a strong support network, that pervades the community.

Horn said members of her FRG are getting together to make holiday care packages. “When you’re in the rooms, it’s not doom and gloom,” she said. “It’s smiles. Laughter. You have to come together as a community.”

That includes the bad times, she said. Battery D has lost one soldier. Cpl. Manuel Hernandez was killed in a rocket attack on June 8. His wife, Jessica, was informed of his death at Caserma Ederle. The two were newly married and she doesn’t speak much English.

Horn said three spouses effectively moved in with her after the news. Others visited routinely to see if there was anything they could do.

Lt. Col. Mike Shinners, the rear detachment commander for the 173rd Airborne Brigade, said that kind of support has been there for all of those who left behind families in Vicenza.

A team consisting of a commander, chaplain and doctor have delivered the initial news. They’re quickly followed by friends or other spouses in the unit. Meals are furnished. Community visitation is scheduled. Travel and funeral arrangements made. Families are sometimes flown in from the States. Procedures to clear the family’s obligations and records from the base are taken care of.

Everything, Shinners said, was rehearsed beforehand.

“Once we were prepared for one, we were prepared for all of them,” he said.

Not that commanders ever wanted to see those plans put into action.

“One was too many,” said Sgt. Maj. John Bagby, the brigade rear detachment’s top noncommissioned officer. But “we knew that even if we weren’t facing combat actions, we probably wouldn’t get through the whole year without an accident.”

Shinners said the impact on the base is often greater when a soldier leaves behind a spouse or family in Italy. That’s been the case in about one-third of the deaths. But he said those providing support or conducting memorial services put forth the same effort every time, which often gives the services a similar feel.

“Different is going to be seen as better or worse in someone’s eye,” he said. “So, yes, it is intentional. We give families an opportunity for input, so there might be some small differences.”

Even though family members haven’t been present at most of the services, Shinners said a decision was made early on to follow a ceremony with a reception. Such receptions, Hudson said, give community members a chance to relieve some grief.

“It is a good chance to people to talk,” he said.

Overall, the chaplain says: “I think the community is handling it pretty well. It’s a good community. A very supportive community.”

The fallenThe Southern European Task Force (Airborne) took command of Combined Joint Task Force-76 in Afghanistan on March 15. Since then, 16 soldiers based in Vicenza, Italy, have died in country. They are:

Spc. Daniel Freeman, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment, April 6, helicopter crash.Maj. Edward Murphy, SETAF headquarters, April 6, helicopter crash.Pfc. Sascha Struble, 1-508, April 6, helicopter crash.Sgt. Romanes Woodard, 1-508, April 6, helicopter crash.Cpl. Steven Tucker, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, May 21, roadside bomb.Cpl. Manuel Hernandez, Battery D, 319th Field Artillery Regiment, June 8, rocket attack.Sgt. Michael Schafer, 2-503, July 25, combat.Pfc. Blake Hall, 2-503, Aug. 21, roadside bomb.1st Lt. Joshua Hyland, 2-503, Aug. 21, roadside bomb.Spc. Michael Lehmiller, 2-503, Aug. 21, roadside bomb.Pfc. Christopher Palmer, 2-503, Aug. 21, roadside bomb.Sgt. Damion Campbell, 1-508, Aug. 26, roadside bomb.1st Lt. Derek Hines, 2-503, Sept. 1, combat.Staff Sgt. John Doles, 1-508, Sept. 30, combat.Staff Sgt. Troy Ezernack, 2-503, Oct. 9, combat.Pfc. Joseph Cruz, 1-508, Oct. 17, accident.‘Everyone took part in supporting the family’

VICENZA, Italy — Capt. Robert Curtis said he’s had some unforgettable experiences while serving as a casualty assistance officer.

Curtis, the rear detachment commander for the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, said he’s had that role twice after soldiers from “The Rock” died in Afghanistan.

His strongest impressions?

“The incredibly strong women that go through what they’ve gone through,” he said.

Each time he’s accompanied the remains of the soldier back to the States and attended the funerals in the soldier’s hometown. And each time he’s been impressed by the efforts of organizations, local businesses and people in general there.

“The entire town was there,” he said. “Everyone took part in supporting the family.”

That support isn’t limited to the hometowns. Sgt. Maj. John Bagby, the 173rd Airborne Brigade rear detachment’s top enlisted soldier, said material from the soldier’s time in Vicenza is sent to families, along with a videotape of the memorial service held at Caserma Ederle.

In addition, soldiers who were once a part of the brigade — the Society of 173rd — have attended every memorial service held in the States.

— Kent Harris

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