Honoring Wisconsin's Finest
WISCONSIN-Today is a day to remember the sacrifices of Wisconsinites in uniform who died far from their families and homes. Each Memorial Day since 2004, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has honored those who died in support of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since last Memorial Day, one war officially ended while another, the longest in U.S. history, continues. For the second year in a row, all of Wisconsin's military casualties died in Afghanistan.
And one soldier, Army Sgt. Chester Stoda, 32, of Black River Falls, died in September in a scuba diving accident in Hawaii on his 15-day leave from deployment to Afghanistan.
They were husbands and fathers, sons and boyfriends. They came from cities and small towns. One was a volunteer firefighter. One had sketched out the design of the engagement ring he planned to give to his girlfriend when he asked her to marry him. Another asked his family to collect boxes of warm clothes so he could hand them out to villagers who needed them.
One soldier's family learned the horrible news on Christmas. Another found out on Father's Day.
They were trumpet players, motorcyclists, snowboarders, an Eagle Scout, paintball enthusiasts. They all wanted to serve their country in the Army, Marines and Navy.
On this Memorial Day it is fitting that we celebrate their lives and remember them.
Pvt. Ryan Larson, 19
United States Army
June 15, 2011
Ryan Larson was a bundle of energy - which came in handy since the guy had so many interests and hobbies, he rarely had a spare minute. He played trumpet, took piano lessons, wrestled, ran on the track and cross country teams at Adams-Friendship High School, played baseball and soccer. He loved to bowl, too. His high school didn't have a bowling team, so he talked his way onto Mauston's team.
"He was good in wrestling, he was good in bowling, he was really good at the trumpet," said his mother, RaeAnn Larson. "His band teacher said he should have gone into the military band. He didn't want that."
Since he was young, Larson wanted to join the Army because his grandfathers, his father and an uncle served. He joined an infantry unit but hoped to switch to Airborne and become a paratrooper.
That surprised his mother.
"I thought that was kind of funny because he wouldn't even get up on the roof. He didn't like heights," RaeAnn Larson said of her only child. "I asked him to go up and clean the gutters of leaves and pine needles. And he's like, 'Uh uh, I'll fall off.' "
Larson arrived in Afghanistan shortly before Osama bin Laden was killed. His mother asked if he and his fellow soldiers were celebrating, but he replied that he couldn't because he was on alert. Larson said he had to be wary at all times. He didn't know whom to trust in Afghanistan. Larson was killed by a roadside bomb.
Sgt. Garrick Eppinger Jr., 25
United States Army Reserve
Sept. 17, 2011
Garrick Eppinger Jr. didn't want his young daughter Lenorea to miss him while he was in Afghanistan. So he recorded himself reading a few children's books. That meant Lenorea's papa could read to her every night. Eppinger also gave her a prized teddy bear he had received from his father, a Navy veteran, when the elder Eppinger was deployed two decades earlier for a different war.
Lenorea turned 2 shortly after her father died in Afghanistan.
"He was a good daddy, he just loved her to pieces," said his mother, Linda Eppinger, also a Navy veteran.
His four older sisters flew to the air base in Dover, Del., where America's fallen military members return to U.S. soil. They escorted their little brother home to his final resting place in Wisconsin.
Eppinger enlisted in the Army right after graduating from high school in 2005, serving two tours in Iraq. He returned home to study political science and business at Fox Valley Technical College and joined the Army Reserve. He had been in Afghanistan a month when he died.
He was considering joining a program for enlisted soldiers who want to become officers. And on each combat tour he brought a special memento. With him in Afghanistan was an American flag signed by students and staff at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a gift from a family friend who teaches at UWM. One of the first things Eppinger did was to hang the American flag in his barracks.
1st Lt. David A. Johnson, 24
United States Army
Jan. 25, 2012
The first thing people remembered about David A. Johnson was his smile. Most of his photos feature a big, toothy grin. As a platoon leader in Afghanistan, Johnson frequently met with village elders to help stabilize the local governments and build a school to train Afghan police officers.
After he was killed in January, the Afghans Johnson befriended asked other American soldiers about him.
"They asked where was the man with the big smile," said his father, Andrew Johnson. "I thought that was a good trait to remember him by."
Called "Big Dave" by his fellow soldiers, Johnson told his family he was married to the Army. He loved the military so much he planned to make it his career. He volunteered for the Afghanistan deployment, even though he could have been stationed in Germany or gone to law school through the military.
Before he married the Army, he was an Eagle Scout who loved to snowboard and water ski. He was active in his church, headed up the youth ministry at Evangel University in Missouri and went on mission trips to France and New York City.
The last time his father saw him was on Christmas Day, when Johnson communicated via Skype inside a tent at his forward operating base. His base didn't have a cook, but he was excited about getting hot food for the holidays.
"He looked terrific," his father remembered. "He looked in his element. He loved what he was doing."
Spc. Tyler Kreinz, 21
United States Army
June 18, 2011
When the Army learned Tyler Kreinz was born with a hole in his heart and underwent open-heart surgery when he was 3, they turned him down. Undaunted, Kreinz tried again. He took a stress test to prove he had the heart, and the will, to become a U.S. soldier. He refused to get off the treadmill until Army doctors said he could join.
"Determination is kind of an understatement with this kid," said his father, David Kreinz.
He was 12 when he watched the Sept. 11 terror attacks and told his father he wanted to join the Army. His family didn't put much stock in his words.
"You know how kids change their minds. You couldn't change that kid's mind for nothing," David Kreinz said.
Kreinz loved to hunt. His father took him hunting for the first time when he was 10. At the age of 13, he shot his first deer. He grew to love and respect the outdoors. Kreinz's goal was to become a conservation warden when he finished serving in the Army.
In a way, his love for wildlife continues. His family decided to start a scholarship in his name for students in the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The first award was given this spring.
Kreinz almost always called home via Skype on Sundays. One Sunday David Kreinz was at work when his wife called him. She never called him at work. She told him to come home. When he pulled in the driveway he saw Army casualty notification officers. It was Father's Day.
Sgt. Jakob Roelli, 24
United States Army
Sept. 21, 2011
Jake Roelli planned to ask his girlfriend, Caitlin, to marry him when he returned from Afghanistan. He sketched out on a piece of paper the design of the engagement ring he would give her. After he was killed, his family chipped in, ordered a ring made from his design - a diamond surrounded by rubies like a poinsettia - and gave it to his girlfriend at his private wake.
"She'll always be a part of our family," said his father, Rick Roelli.
Roelli might be considered a geek or a nerd. He skipped his graduation from Darlington High School to compete at the national Odyssey of the Mind competition. He performed in plays in high school, competed in forensics and liked to read. He was all set on joining the Marines, but the day he intended to sign up, the Marine recruiter was not in his office. But the Army recruiter was.
A fitness nut, he went through strenuous training for Special Forces and was in Ranger School when his infantry unit deployed to Afghanistan. "They would say, 'Jake, do 200 push-ups' and he'd do it and say, 'Sergeant, is that all you got?' He was a character," Rick Roelli said.
The last time Roelli talked to his father he mentioned that conditions were rough in Afghanistan. He had been shot at several times. When father and son said goodbye, they said, "I love you."
"I remember that's the one thing I was thankful for," Rick Roelli said. "To be able to tell your son 'I love you' before he died."
Staff Sgt. Jesse Grindey, 30
United States Army
March 12, 2012
Jesse Grindey was home on leave before his Army unit deployed to Afghanistan, a time when he could have rested and hung out with his family. But when a fire call came in to the Hazel Green volunteer fire department, Grindey dropped everything and went with his fellow volunteer firefighters.
"Even being home on leave, he still went out on calls," said his father, Rich Grindey.
Since he was a young boy, Grindey wanted to be a firefighter or a police officer. At age 17, he joined his small community's volunteer fire department. Then he signed up for the Army, joining a military police company. So he got to be both a firefighter and a cop.
Grindey was good with electronics and handled lighting and sound for plays at his high school. Even though his name was the same as the famous outlaw Jesse James, his father said he was actually named after an uncle who died. He enlisted in the Army in 2002 and served a year in Iraq soon after the war began in 2003, as well as tours in Korea and Japan before deploying to Afghanistan.
The Hazel Green Fire Department was part of Grindey's funeral in March, dispatching a fire truck as part of the solemn procession. In his honor, firefighters participated in a last call for their fallen comrade.
A few days before he died, Grindey, who was married with two small children, celebrated his 30th birthday. His family sent him a birthday package with cards, coffee and treats. It was returned unopened in May.
Cpl. Michael Nolen, 22
United States Marines
June 27, 2011
Michael Nolen and his older brother Sam planned to become Marines when they grew up. They dressed in military gear, built forts and talked about serving their country. When he was 9, his 12-year-old brother died in a farm accident. And when he was old enough to enlist in the Marines, Nolen realized the dream he shared with his brother.
He got a tattoo of an eagle across his shoulders in his brother's memory.
"He wanted to join the best. Wherever it was hardest, he was always there," said his mother, Judith Nolen.
Nolen was born two months early, weighing just under 4 pounds. He loved playing soccer, rock climbing and shooting paintball with his friends on his family's farm. Nolen was a tour guide at Crystal Cave in Spring Valley and managed a fish-and-chips booth at the Minnesota State Fair.
He loved his 1998 Yamaha V-Star motorcycle. Nolen's commitment to the Marines was due to end last November, and then he was going to travel with his family. His mother and sister each earned their motorcycle licenses in anticipation of the journeys they would take with him. Now they're going on a motorcycle trip in his memory.
Nolen also was looking forward to spending more time with his younger brother, Alec, 14. It's fair to say Alec worshipped his older brother. When a Marine casualty assistance officer brought some of Nolen's possessions to his family, Alec was given one of the dog tags his brother was wearing when he died.
Staff Sgt. Joseph Altmann, 27
United States Army
Dec. 25, 2011
If you were friends with Joe Altmann, you ate well. When Altmann came home on leave from the Army he would fill his grocery cart with a variety of pork shoulders and other meats to smoke. He loved to cook. His specialties were sausages and smoked meats.
He talked about joining the military while still in high school and wanted to join an infantry unit, but his recruiter steered him toward the medic corps because he was smart and good at medicine. Anyone who has served in combat will say the unit's medic holds a special place in everyone's heart. So it was with Joe Altmann.
"Joe was very quiet about what he did," his mother, Janice Altmann, said. After he died, "we had people say to us, 'I'm here or my husband is here' because Joe was there for them on that day."
Before deploying to Afghanistan, Altmann served two tours in Iraq and asked his family to collect boxes of winter clothing that he helped disperse to Iraqis. On Christmas Eve, he communicated with his family on Facebook and sent a note to his sister that he wouldn't be able to chat with her on Christmas because he was going on a mission.
On Christmas Day, his parents had just returned home after celebrating the holiday with family when the doorbell rang. Christmas won't be easy for Altmann's family members, but they plan to celebrate his life on that day, as they do every day.
"It's really interesting because a complete stranger told me, 'What a beautiful day to enter heaven,' " Janice Altmann said.
Cpl. Benjamin Neal, 21
United States Army
April 25, 2012
Porch lights flicked on, one by one and then by the dozens and hundreds. They were beacons of love and admiration, honoring a soldier who left his small town to serve his country on a distant battlefield.
When the tragic news hit the 1,300 residents of Orfordville that one of their own had fallen in battle, the first since World War I, neighbors and townspeople quickly heeded a request from Benjamin Neal's cousins to leave their porch lights on until Neal came home.
A high school wrestler, Neal joined the Army right out of Parkview High School in Orfordville in 2009. He became a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, and the year after he graduated from high school he was in Afghanistan on the first of two deployments to the war-torn country. His fellow paratroopers spoke of his charisma, sense of humor and his skills as a leader.
Soon the porch light effort, which spread like wildfire with the aid of social media, grew to hundreds then thousands of people in Orfordville, in Wisconsin, throughout the United States, in Europe, Australia and even Afghanistan, where other U.S. service members saw the request to light the way for Neal to come home.
The lights were left on until Neal's body returned this month and was driven though the town in a white hearse escorted by squad cars, firetrucks and motorcyclists. Hundreds of people lined the streets to pay their respects. They held American flags. They held hands. They held signs that read, "Thank You Ben Neal."
Lt. Christopher Mosko, 28
United States Navy
April 26, 2012
Christopher Mosko was sent to Afghanistan to find and defuse bombs. After graduating from Eau Claire Memorial High School, where he played soccer, sang in the show choir and competed on the swim team, he moved to Philadelphia and earned a degree in commerce and engineering at Drexel University's LeBow College of Business. He enrolled in the Naval ROTC program, received his commission and started the arduous training to become a bomb disposal officer.
His coaches in Eau Claire remembered him as a great soccer player - always the first on the practice field and the last to leave - and team captain who led Memorial to the state tournament in 2001, losing in the semifinal to Marquette University High School, which won the state title. He was an excellent student and hard worker whose passion was the military.
Military explosives experts are a tight-knit group because they must depend on each other to survive in such dangerous, high-stakes conditions where a momentary lapse of concentration or a wrong move can mean the difference between life and death.
Roadside bombs have become the signature method of death in Afghanistan, and men like Mosko work valiantly to save others from dying in explosions. The platoon he commanded worked with Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces troops in Afghanistan.
Mosko and two others were killed when their vehicle drove over a bomb.