Five Soldiers We Lost in 2016

As I laid a hand on the frail body of Specialist Leon Nelson and prayed

I sensed that this cancer-besieged veteran’s battle would soon come to an end.

Specialist Nelson had served in the Army on and off for thirty-eight years and, even as cancer assailed him, he still greeted his fellow soldiers with a smile each month as they came in and out of the reserve center in Pewaukee, Wisconsin.

Tragically, Specialist Nelson was one of five losses suffered this past year by the 397th Engineer Battalion, based out of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. On the same day that Specialist Nelson’s unit conducted a memorial ceremony for him, a sister unit in Milwaukee was honoring one of their soldiers: Specialist Roger Staton.

Specialist Staton succumbed to a more aggressive form of cancer and, like Specialist Nelson, he had a long career in the Army that stretched over thirty-eight years. He was known for his humility—doing menial tasks without a second thought—and a hilarious laugh that reminded his fellow soldiers of Krusty the Clown from The Simpsons. Specialist Staton left behind a widow and a long-lost daughter who had recently come into his life.

As I was caring for soldiers grieving the loss of Specialist Staton and preparing for the impending loss of Specialist Nelson, I received a call informing me that one of our soldiers up in Marquette, Michigan, had just been murdered. Specialist Brandon LaFavre was just a kid—21—and his work ethic and pride in the uniform portended great things for his future. He was often selected for special assignments by leaders who recognized his talents and abilities.

One horrible month of June. Three soldiers. And there would be more to come.

In late July, tragedy struck again when Sergeant Timothy Talford was killed in a car accident. Sergeant Talford deployed to Afghanistan in 2011-2012 and was picking up the pieces from that experience with his young bride, Shelby, who was pregnant with a little girl. Sergeant Talford was a leader and known for his care for those soldiers under him. On November 17th, Shelby gave birth to a beautiful baby who will not know her father, but will hear plenty about him.

Sergeant Talford’s memorial ceremony was held on the first day of the first day of a three-week annual training exercise for the 397th and each of the individual units—several now missing a soldier—were there. Prayers and tears abounded during those three weeks, even as these valiant soldiers participated in training meant to prepare them for war.

One of those valiant soldiers, Staff Sergeant Julio Garcia, was lost to us just before Halloween. Deployed twice, he had been awarded a Purple Heart. He left behind a devoted girlfriend and precious little girl who adored her daddy. Sergeant Garcia was often seen walking up and down the hallways of the reserve center in Eau Claire, his little girl bundled up in his arms. There is still an active effort to raise money to support Sergeant Garcia’s daughter.

Within a five-month span, five soldiers were lost. You expect such numbers in combat, but not at home.

When I sadly reflect upon these shortened lives, I am drawn to the most succinct verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Jesus, the Son of God through whom the world was made, wept when he approached the tomb of his friend, Lazarus. The created world reflected his beauty; the fallen world inevitably ends with the specter of a tomb. If Jesus can weep, I can, as well. So can my soldiers.

Yet on that same day, Jesus raised Lazarus from that tomb, pointing forward to Jesus’ own resurrection from death and the tomb. Through his life, death, and resurrection, he gives us freedom to grieve and freedom to believe that through him, death does not have the final word. Our tears may be accompanied by hope.

Even as the units within the 397th Engineer Battalion grieve the loss of these brothers-in-arms, America, as a whole, has lost something, too. Our great country is not only defended by such men, but is made rich through their lives and character. With their loss, we are all made a bit poorer. They will be missed.