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Sailors’ lives celebrated

Fear is implicit in any military serviceman or woman’s job.

The fear felt by Petty Officer 1st Class Randy Leppell during Monday’s private memorial service at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station was even more visceral as he clutched for words to help properly eulogize his close friend and colleague, Joseph “Adam” McSween and the other two sailors from Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit 11 killed in Iraq in April.

“I’m scared to close because I feel like this is the last chance to say to everyone how great they were and I don’t want to mess it up,” said Leppell, also a member of EODMU-11. “I love these guys and I’m going to miss them. And I’m so sorry they did not come back.”

The memorial service was held in Skywarrior Theater for family and friends of Chief Petty Officer Gregory J. Billiter, Petty Officer 2nd Class Curtis R. Hall, and Petty Officer 1st Class McSween. The three sailors were killed April 6 in Iraq when a rocket struck their vehicle during a tactical combat patrol.

A stirring and heartbreaking photo montage played on loop on the movie screen prior to the memorial, serving as a visual celebration of each sailor’s life. Friends and family, military and civilian, shared the same grief. Silence enveloped the theater as the families of the fallen sailors were ushered in.

Chief Petty Officer Matthew Broderson became friends within a few weeks of meeting Billiter, 36, at Detachment 1. After a little more time, they were “the best of friends.” Whether it’s the long hours and the extreme conditions, the bond forged between sailors in the EOD community is unbreakable, Broderson said at the memorial.

“Now if I could choose one person to always have my back, Greg is the only one who comes to my mind,” he said. “Throughout every endeavor we were involved in together, he was always right there ready to go, on time. Even when things were grueling and painful, he would just smile and say, ‘I’m just happy to be here.’ And he would laugh.”

Even after Broderson was taken off of the detachment, Billiter would call him and invite him over to his home to help with projects. The consummate perfectionist, his meticulous nature could intimidate some people, but not Broderson.

“Greg had to do things as close to perfection as humanly possible, some times to the point where it would just annoy regular people,” he said. “In that regard I feel very privileged to be one of the few people invited over to his home to meet his family.

“To me, he was truly the best of us and the best friend a guy ever had.”

Broderson said the ultimate sacrifice that the three sailors made is part of a bigger plan.

“Greg, Adam, Curtis, they all died doing what they wanted to be doing,” he said. “They solely believed in what they were doing. And the best way for the rest of us to honor them is to never quit, never stop, and always realize that what you are doing is important. None of these men died needlessly.”

Equally meticulous and driven, McSween, 26, was quickly climbing the ranks, days away from qualifying as an EOD team leader. Aside from his professionalism, Leppell said the sailor had a rare personality. From improvised chest waxing using Gorilla Tape to a handmade diaper constructed from toilet paper after his clothes were stolen from the locker room, McSween was an American original whose sense of duty was superseded only by the love for his wife, Erin, and their two daughters.

“We would talk about experiences with our daughters,” the sailor said. “He constantly bragged about them.”

Leppell was trying to recruit McSween for another deployment before the tragedy struck. He said that Abraham Lincoln went through countless men before finding his Ulysses S. Grant.

“Adam would have been my Grant,” he said.

When Leppell flew into Nebraska with McSween’s remains, he was floored by the number of people lining the streets waving flags. The entire town closed down for the homecoming. Residents who never met the fallen sailor showed their support. The experience left an indelible impression.

“It’s an amazing thing and it’s recharged me,” he said.

Hall, nicknamed Probie after the term used by firefighters to identify a probationary firefighter, was the new kid on the block. Petty Officer 2nd Class John Richards roomed with Hall during EOD school and later on Whidbey Island.

“My first impression was, ‘Man, is that guy tall,’” Richards said. “He also had a big heart.”

The easygoing 24-year-old was a hero even before he deployed to Iraq. He and his brother saved their father’s life during a rafting trip when they were younger.

“Even at a young age, they knew what to do at the right time,” Richards said.

Hall proved himself not with words but with his actions. When he joined the cohesive EOD team, he “fell into it running” even with the close scrutiny.

“I really had a lot of respect for him. He just wanted to please his teammates,” Richards said. At a rough period in the sailor’s personal life, Hall was a 6-foot-7 elixir. “He kind of filled in the gap.”

The EOD members are a special breed with their own brand of humor, vernacular and brotherhoods, Richards said.

“You’ve got your friends, you’ve got your best friends, and you’ve got your brothers,” he said. “Brothers go beyond friendship; brothers are blood. And I had a lot of brothers in Det 1.”

Richards cautioned people attending the memorial from blaming God for the tragedy. He, like Broderson, believes in the bigger picture.

“I know that something good has to come from this,” he said.

Each of the sailors separately and effusively offered to help the family members when needed.

“I’ll be your adopted sailor and I’ll be there for a hug,” Richards said.

“They would have done this for us and we want to be there for you,” Leppell said.

Cmdr. Martin Beck, commanding officer for EODMU-11, said he deeply respected each man on a personal and professional level.

“These three men were the Navy’s best...” he said. “They were my guys.”

“They knew the risks and faced them. That’s courage. These men walked up to the edge every day.”

The sailors placed the nation’s needs above their own, the commander continued.

“Men of such character are truly rare,” he added.

Regardless of religious or philosophical leanings, Beck said the undeniable fact is that good and evil are at war. Faltering now in the conflict would cost too much.

“Our investment has been too great,” he said.

Although as their commanding officer Beck had a different relationship with the three sailors, his fraternal affection for the men was evident.

“I can still hear their jokes and voices over the roar of the Humvee engine,” he said.

Each soldier was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

At the memorial’s close, the playing of Taps cut through any residual machismo and wetted even the most hardened eye.

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