STRYKER FAMILIES MOURN
The News Tribune (Tacoma)
December 12, 2003
Two men from Oregon and one from California were identified Thursday as the Stryker brigade soldiers who died in an accident Monday north of Baghdad.
Two families of the fallen infantrymen issued statements of sorrow Thursday, and the brigade's commanding officer called the soldiers heroes as he prepared for a memorial service at the Stryker base camp today in Iraq.
"We lost brothers in arms," said unit commander Col. Michael Rounds. "They were friends."
The Fort Lewis-based soldiers, who died when their vehicles flipped into a canal, were identified as Staff Sgt. Stephen H. Bridges, 33, of Tracy, Calif.; Spc. Joseph M. Blickenstaff, 23, of Albany, Ore.; and Spc. Christopher J. Rivera Wesley, 26, of Portland.
The families of Blickenstaff and Bridges issued brief public statements Thursday, which were read at a news conference by Lt. Col. Stephen Barger, public affairs officer for Fort Lewis.
There was no statement from Wesley's family.
Debra Bridges, wife of Stephen Bridges, said she and her husband married almost six years ago.
"He knew that he was going to miss his family, and at times expected that he might not see us again, but he deployed with confidence that he was well trained and ready," Debra Bridges said. "No one could have ever predicted the accident that suddenly took this man from our lives. He is greatly missed by his family, and will be missed by his many friends."
Bridges' parents last saw their oldest child on Halloween at Fort Lewis shortly before he was deployed Nov. 13, they told the Tracy (Calif.) Press.
Bridges and his wife had a 5-year-old daughter, Sarrah. Stephen Bridges also considered his wife's three children from a previous marriage his own, said his parents, Sheldon and Loretta Bridges.
"He supported his kids, no matter what," said Loretta Bridges, 54.
Family friend Bob Davis, associate pastor at Lakeside Chapel, baptized the Bay Area resident.
"He loved God, his family and his country in that order," Davis told the Tracy Press.
Bridges' parents said their son wanted to become a history teacher when he retired from the military in a little more than eight years.
Blickenstaff's wife, Angela, also issued a brief statement.
"We remember his humor, his depth, intensity and his strength of spirit," she said. "He was a living testimony to compassion and empathy. He was proud to protect our freedoms and died helping to create them for others he will never meet. He will always be our hero."
Blickenstaff attended Central Elementary School and Memorial Middle School and graduated from West Albany High School in Oregon.
"He was one of those kids that you could see a real light in his eyes," Jim Phillips, a teacher at West Albany, told the Corvallis Gazette-Times newspaper. "He was a fine young man."
English teacher Mary Gault remembered him from a class his freshman year.
"Joe was interested in music. He liked to draw, had a creative mind, a good sense of humor and a big heart," she said.
Phillips said Blickenstaff joined the Army to find discipline in his life.
"He was missing a lot of school, and he needed somebody to put an arm around him," Phillips said. "I think the military was the right choice for him. He was just one of those quiet boys who was looking for direction."
Wesley graduated from Beaverton High School in 1995, where he did not participate in sports or special activities, school officials said. He joined the Army after high school, but left to live with his grandmother in Guam in the mid-1990s.
Relatives in Guam said he was particularly close with the grandmother, and was upset he couldn't return to Guam for her funeral this fall, his uncle, Joseph Wesley, told the Pacific Daily News of Guam on Thursday.
The three men were among 19 soldiers riding in two Stryker vehicles that fell into an irrigation canal when an embankment collapsed Monday evening. A fourth soldier was rescued from a submerged vehicle, revived and hospitalized.
The accident happened less than a week after the 5,000-member brigade entered Iraq from Kuwait, taking 300 of the new medium-weight Army vehicles into hostile territory for the first time.
Back at Fort Lewis, public affairs officer Barger would not address reports that the hatch of one of the Stryker vehicles was inadvertently left padlocked at the time of the accident. He said an investigation is continuing. Rounds has said that the lock did not prevent anyone capable of escaping from getting out.
Asked whether the accident raised questions about the effectiveness of the Stryker vehicles, Barger said, "We're confident in all the equipment we've been given and the ability of all our soldiers to use it."
At least eight other soldiers with ties to the Tacoma area have been killed while serving in Iraq or elsewhere in the war on terrorism since early 2002. Some grew up in Pierce County. Others were stationed or had trained at Fort Lewis.
Two died while fighting terrorists in the Philippines, two while pursuing the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and four while deployed in the war on Iraq. They were victims of helicopter or vehicle crashes, terrorist bombings or hostile enemy fire.
--News Tribune staff writers Sean Robinson and Adam Lynn and The Associated Press contributed to this report.