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Four more trees salute to fallen
Fort Stewart's Warriors Walk
AW October4
The parents of 19-year-old fallen 3rd Infantry Division soldier Spc. Christian Neff are escorted to their seats before the start of Thursday's tree dedication ceremony on Fort Stewart's Warriors Walk. - photo by Photo by Andrea Washington
Keith Nurnberg was a husband expecting his first child. John Mele II was already a dedicated father who had settled with a family in Glennville. Javier Paredes was a former foster kid who did not want to be a victim of his upbringing. Christian Neff was a high school academic and public service standout.
But although their paths differed, all of these men have a place in American history as four of the more than 3,800 U.S. soldiers who have given their life during Operation Iraqi Freedom and were recognized Thursday for their sacrifice.
The fallen 3rd Infantry Division soldiers were each honored Thursday with freshly planted eastern redbud trees and granite markers etched with their names along Fort Stewart’s Warriors Walk, a living memorial for the division’s soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The four new lots, unveiled during a monthly tree dedication to commemorate soldiers’ lives, bring the total number of heroes memorialized along the walk to 373.
Fort Stewart Garrison Commander Col. Todd Buchs said he was humbled to speak of “four great people, four fine soldiers,” as family members of Cpls. Keith Nurnberg and Javier Paredes, Sgt. John Mele and Spc. Christian Neff wept throughout the observance.
With Nurnberg’s pregnant wife, Tanya, looking on, Buchs said the soldier’s enthusiasm for the outdoors is something he and his son, whom the couple already named Keith Jr. and is due Nov. 17, would have bonded over.
“(He) was looking forward to being a father,” the garrison commander said. “He would have shared his love for the outdoors - fishing, rock climbing, the Chicago Bears and Chicago White Sox - with his and Tanya’s unborn child.”
Nurnberg, 26, was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team at Fort Benning and worked as a tanker. He was killed on Sept. 5 after being wounded in an insurgent attack on his unit during combat operations in Baghdad.
A native of McHenry, Ill., he joined the Army at 22, following in the tradition of his great-grandfather, who fought in World War I, his grandfather in WWII and his father in the Vietnam War.
“He believed in family and strong soldier ties,” Buchs said. “His loving nature and dedication will never be forgotten.”
For 24-year-old medic Paredes, joining the Army was more about creating a new path for his family rather than continuing the traditions of the broken home he grew up in San Antonio, Texas.
He and his four brothers were taken from a home with no water, no heat, no food and parents who were unable or unwilling to care them.
His mother died in 1999 and Paredes spent most of his time in foster homes until moving in with his aunt, Maria Acevedo just before joining the Army in 2004.
Paredes, like Nurnberg, was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team at Fort Benning. He died from wounds sustained in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Baghdad.
“For all that Javier endured, he was innocent and helpful...joining the Army gave him a place where truly fit in and had a chance to help,” Buchs said.
It also made him an inspiration to a younger brother who despite being separated from him most of his life, said he will miss Paredes’ humor.
“He was just funny,” Pedro Paredes, 21, said as he fought back tears. “At work they called him ‘Niño’ because he always had a lot of energy and always running around laughing and joking.”
A humorous and easygoing personality was also the trademark of Sgt. Mele, 25, who was killed during his third deployment on Sept. 14 in Arab Jabour, Iraq, after an improvised explosive device detonated near his unit.
A native of Union City, Tenn., the combat engineer for the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team made roots in Glennville with his wife, Jennifer, and 6-year-old daughter, Clarissa.
Many in the community of about 4,000 residents saw Mele as “a source of inspiration and symbol of American pride and freedom,” according to Buchs, but never let the admiration go to his head.
The youngest of the soldiers honored Thursday, 19-year-old Spc. Neff, had given only a year of military service when he was killed by an IED blast in Baghdad on Sept. 19. But he was no stranger to serving his community.
A tanker with the division’s 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, Neff was an academic standout and volunteer for numerous food drives, fundraisers and recycling days as a high school student in Lima, Ohio. He also served as a motivational speaker to students at his high school after joining the Army.
“Chris would wear his full dress uniform. He would talk about doing your best at everything you do,” Buchs said. “Chris could point to himself as the perfect example...Chris loved being a soldier, even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice.”
With a gentle breeze blowing down Warriors Walk, the garrison commander concluded the flags, as well as the redbuds and granite markers are icons for generations to come.
“The flags here remind us of the nation we serve and the generations of American’s who are indebted to these four soldiers,” Buchs said, “and their soldier brothers and sisters whose names adorn these markers.”
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