The soggy grass at Fort Stewart’s Cottrell Field squished beneath the boots of soldiers from the 549th Military Police Company, 385th Military Police Battalion and 3rd Infantry Division during Thursday’s tree ceremony as they lined up on Warrior’s Walk to meet the family of one of their fallen heroes, Spc. Roberto Hernandez.
“I am sorry for your loss,” some of them said to his mother, Paulina Richards.
“He was a great guy, always taking care of others first,” another soldier told Hernandez’s aunt, Virginia Tomlinson.
Richards said she was grateful to have met the men and women who cared for and loved her son as much she did.
“These tears are not in vain … they’re not because he is gone, but because he rests in the arms of God,” she said. “Thank you for being his extended family … for you just being that shoulder for him to lean on.”
Tomlinson, who said she had been “anti-military” before her visit to Fort Stewart, told the group she’d recently had a reality check.
“Now I realize the real sacrifice that each and everyone one of you make,” she said.
“I salute you … ,” she said as she lifted her hand to her forehead.
The soldiers listened to Richards’ and Tomlinson’s stories of Hernandez’s childhood in Queens, N.Y., and also honored the memory of another of their fallen brothers, Spc. Johnathan O’Neil, 22. Hernandez was originally from San Bernadino, Calf., and O’Neil was originally from Bridgeport, Conn.
Both were due to return home from a deployment to Afghanistan with their unit last Sunday, but were killed during an attack on their Humvee on June 2.
Their lives and their spirits are now represented by two of the 420 eastern red bud trees at Fort Stewart’s Warrior’s Walk.
In the absence of O’Neil’s family, the only survivor from the attack, Staff Sgt. Paul Roberts, sat in front of the crowd with Hernandez’s family.
After the ceremony ended, Roberts, whose emotional scars seemed to mirror the visible ones he received from being burned during the attack, gave short responses to questions concerning his fallen battle buddies.
“They were the best driver, gunner combo ever,” he said. “I was very pleased to have them in my crew.”
Afterward he dropped to one knee, put his arm around Richards and smiled for a photo, capturing the bittersweet moment on film.
“I love them,” he said of Hernandez’s family. “I loved their son as was my own and he will be greatly missed, but neither he nor O’Neil will ever be forgotten.”