Mourners at Hanau pay tribute to fallen sergeant
HANAU, Germany — Perhaps the most poignant moment in the memorial service for the fallen sergeant came at the beginning. For a few seconds during a slideshow of Sgt. Mason Douglas Whetstone’s life in the desert — hamming it up with buddies, tapping at a laptop computer — there glowed a shot of him wearing sand-colored fatigues and standing by a sign: “Hanau or bust.”
Whetstone, 30, would never see Hanau again. The soldier died July 17 at Baghdad International Airport from what the military described as “noncombat injuries.” His death is still under investigation. No further information had been released as of Thursday.
Thursday morning, about 100 people gathered inside Fliegerhorst Chapel to remember the air traffic controller from Hanau’s 3rd Battalion, 58th Aviation Regiment. Friends and colleagues described a determined man with a relaxed, but pleasantly mischievous, spirit.
“Mason never became angry,” said Sgt. Brian Pardue, a friend who shared the same job. Whetstone tackled problems with logic, not heat. He had once worked as a Florida police officer. He had fought in the first Gulf War.
“We will never be the team we once were,” Pardue said, wearing a dark civilian suit. “We will never forget Mason, nor should we.”
The company commander, Capt. Michael Mouritsen, recalled Whetstone’s first mission as a team chief: setting up an airfield in Iraq.
“He was not going to fail,” Mouritsen said.
The captain’s voice wavered as he spoke to his soldier’s widow. “Heather, I bring condolences and love from Baghdad.”
She is left with two daughters, Layne, 6; and Deborah, 3.
Sgt. 1st Class James McMillion, who seemed still stunned, called Whetstone his star pupil. He said he had always heard that change was good.
Now, “I’m not sure I agree,” he said.
But McMillion later offered: “A piece of him will live with me. ... I am changed.”
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) George Miller led the congregation in a reading of the 23rd Psalm.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. ...”
A second chaplain, Capt. Robert Brott, encouraged everyone to really live, to cease thinking of life as some distant point blinking in the future, to relish the here and now.
There were also light moments. Mouritsen told the crowd of visiting Whetstone’s tent and finding him apparently asleep inside a “wind tunnel” he had set up using two fans and a poncho, the whole affair billowing with cool air. Somebody mentioned coffee, and Whetstone snapped awake.
“I’d come out naked for a cup of coffee,” Whetstone quipped. Then he saw that his company commander had walked in.
“The look on his face was priceless,” Mouritsen said.
After the service, Pardue remembered how Whetstone would remove the batteries from disposable cameras and zap fellow soldiers.
When they first arrived in Baghdad, Whetstone’s buddies noticed that he would slip away for a few hours at a time. They wondered what was up. One day, Whetstone invited them along. “You’ve gotta see this,” he said.
A former tanker, Whetstone had found some of his old pals were in Baghdad, too. He took Pardue and some other traffic controllers on a tour of the M1 Abrams.
They crawled through its hatch; sat inside it, saw how it worked. Whetstone looked on, smile on high beam.
“It was one of my best experiences in the military,” Pardue said.
Young soldiers looked up to the sergeant. Mouritsen described Whetstone often looking at his frustrated troops, tapping his head and telling them, “Think happy thoughts.”
Mouritsen also noted the void of information surrounding Whetstone’s death with words of assurance.
“He never would sacrifice his integrity or his values,” Mouritsen said. “It makes it even more of a tragedy when you lose someone of that caliber.”