By Amanda Kim StairrettJune 12, 2013
FORT RILEY, Kan. -- Sgt. Kristopher Ortega had a simple reason for visiting the 1st Infantry Division's Victory Park on a hot, windy Kansas day.
"We came here today to honor my fallen friend," the 22-year-old infantryman said.
The friend is Pfc. Jesus J. Lopez -- "Johnny" or "Lo Lo" to his buddies. He was serving in Afghanistan's Paktika Province with Company D, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Inf. Div., when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb. It was Aug. 1, 2012: Lopez's 22nd birthday.
First Lt. Todd W. Lambka also lost his life in the blast.
HONORING THE FALLEN
Lopez, Lambka and eight other "Big Red One" Soldiers were honored Wednesday, June 12, during a Victory Park memorial brick rededication ceremony. Marble bricks etched with the names, memories and sacrifices of Lopez, Lambka, Capt. Michael C. Braden, Staff Sgt. Zachary H. Hargrove, Spc. Cody O. Moosman, Sgt. Erik N. May, Capt. James D. Nehl, Staff Sgt. Matthew H. Stiltz, Sgt. Channing B. Hicks and Sgt. Joseph A. Richardson were added to the 541 others lining both sides of a concrete walkway through the park.
All 551 paid the ultimate sacrifice while assigned or attached to the 1st Inf. Div. during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The ceremony is hosted annually during the post's Victory Week celebration.
Six of the park's newest bricks represent Soldiers from the 1st Bn., 28th Inf. Regt. -- the "Black Lions." Two represent the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th IBCT; one Division Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 1st Inf. Div.; and one from the 84th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Battalion, 1st Sustainment Brigade.
"These men, and their Families, have sacrificed everything for the greater good -- an ideal which our country principles are based upon," Maj. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, 1st Inf. Div. and Fort Riley commanding general, said during the ceremony. "Through their noble actions, they continue to pay forward every freedom used and known by all those who breathe."
THERE FOR THE FAMILY
Ortega had another reason for being in Victory Park that windy morning. He and another "Dog Company" infantryman, Spc. Joseph Tulga, were accompanying their fallen comrade's Family. Lopez's father, mother and two of three brothers traveled from San Bernardino, Calif., to Fort Riley for the rededication ceremony.
Ortega, Tulga and others from "Dog Company" surrounded the Family members as they made tracings of Lopez's brick, the last piece of marble in line, which is bordered by lush green grass. The Soldiers patiently helped and waited for the Lopezes before getting down on their hands and knees to make their own tracings.
Ortego said he and Tulga were chosen to help escort the Lopez Family because they knew Johnny best and were there that day in August 2012.
It was their job to make the Lopezes feel welcome, Ortega said. June 12 was all about them.
"It was also important because I knew the Family needed to be taken care of," he said. "I wanted to make sure it went correctly."
Ortega and Lopez were in the same squad and roommates in Afghanistan. Ortega said Lopez was one of the best Soldiers -- best people -- he has ever met. He just wanted his friend's parents to know "their son was extraordinary."
Ortega felt better after telling them.
"(It) makes me feel at peace in a way," he said. "It's been hard since everything happened although it's almost been a year. It's something that you'll just carry on your shoulders for your entire life."
'COMFORT IN THE PROCESS'
For Lt. Col. Kevin Lambert, events like the Victory Park ceremony are about being next to people who are grieving the same and feeling the same emotions as him.
"There's comfort in the process when you're with those that are going through it," he said.
It is also significant to demonstrate to the Families of the fallen their Soldiers' sacrifices are valuable, a price tag can't be put on it and they won't be forgotten, Lambert said.
Lambert commanded the 2nd Bn., 16th Inf. Regt., during its last deployment to Afghanistan, and recently relinquished command. The names on two new bricks in Victory Park belong to his Soldiers.
Tulga first met Lopez in basic training. It was tough and everyone was down, Tulga said. Lopez was making his bed and singing a song in Spanish. Tulga asked about it and after a few hours of Spanish lessons, he was singing it with Lopez. It was something about sunrise, Tulga remembered.
Tulga was at Victory Park because Lopez was like his brother. They were the young guys in the platoon and stuck together.
Not only was Lopez strong and a light in the platoon, he was an amazing Soldier who could make the best of everything, Tulga said.
"I strive to be like him," Tulga said.
When Ortega looked at the brick bearing his buddy's name, what came to mind?
"A rush of memories," he said. "A rush of memories of the deployment."
Ortega will soon leave Kansas for Joint Base Lewis-McChord and take the memories of the deployment and Lopez with him. He'll remember the last thing they did together -- a competitive chess game he lost -- and Lopez's laugh. Not so much a laugh, Ortega remembered, but "more of a chuckle with a Hispanic accent" he wouldn't even dare try to imitate.
FEW CAN IDENTIFY
The work done by these heroes is not easy, Funk said.
"It is dirty, lonely and endless, but this blend of physical, emotional and spiritual qualities make them into the uniquely dependable people so few of our countrymen can identify with," he added.
They understood to be a great leader, one must be willing to be led, Funk said. They placed all they know to be good, honest and pure into the hands of another.
"However, these brave men know that as they placed their lives in the hands of another, they did this willingly -- knowing that it was the last full measure of devotion to the nation," Funk said.