FORT LEE, Va. (May 7, 2019) -- A Fort Lee service member died last week.
His fate did not occur on the battlefields of Southwest Asia, a place where thousands of fighting men and women have fallen supporting U.S. interests. He did not perish while engaged in one of the many training exercises around the world that help prepare our troops for battle.
Col. Gregory S. Townsend died performing a simple act of kindness - one characterizing his life and legacy as a servant-Soldier.
The sustainment community gathered to celebrate that fact and more about the 23rd Quartermaster Brigade commander during an April 30 service at Memorial Chapel. Among the filled-to-capacity crowd were Gen. Gustave F. Perna, commanding general of Army Materiel Command; Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, Training and Doctrine Command CG; and Maj. Gen. Rodney D. Fogg, CASCOM and Fort Lee's senior leader.
Townsend's wife Jennifer and their children were present along with a number of close and extended family members. Often recognizing their presence and expressing sorrow for their loss, friends and colleagues provided testimonies relating to the colonel's military career, family life and his persona.
"The loss of Col. Greg Townsend will be felt across the Army," said the first speaker, Brig. Gen. Douglas M. McBride Jr., Quartermaster General. "We loved him not only as a Soldier-leader but as an individual."
Townsend was fatally injured April 18 on Route 460, not far from Fort Lee. The father of four was on his way home from work when he stopped his vehicle near Wakefield to help a stranded motorist change a tire. Working underneath the vehicle, Townsend had nearly completed the repairs when the car fell and pinned him. The 46-year-old was flown to VCU Medical Center Critical Care Hospital, Richmond, where he died April 22.
"He had every reason to drive on and not stop to help a stranded driver fix a flat tire," McBride said of Townsend during the ceremony. "There's no telling how many cars drove by and continued on; probably hundreds. Instead, Greg's ethos called on him to stop and help."
McBride provided a snapshot of the deceased Soldier's career, highlighting his multiple deployments and achievements over the course of 23 years. Although he had been Townsend's commander less than a year, McBride said it sufficed to conclude he was indeed an exceptional individual.
"So, let me set the record straight today," he said, pausing, "Col. Greg Townsend invigorated the 23rd Quartermaster Brigade, the Quartermaster School and the Combined Arms Support Command with his leadership and his passion for the Army. He loved being a leader of Soldiers ... There's no question in my mind that Greg was the best brigade commander I've observed in over 29 years of service."
While Townsend's military accomplishments were well noted by McBride, fellow speakers Col. Ted B. Shinkle, Dylan R. Wells Sr., Lt. Col. Daniel L. Horn and Sgt. Maj. Eric D. Cantrell all shared personal interactions with Townsend that lent insights to the individual.
Wells, for one, took the edge off the overwhelmingly solemn tone with splashes of humor owed to his Louisiana upbringing while recounting an event where he met Townsend when the two were undergraduates at Alabama's Auburn University.
"He was a good-looking guy with plenty of friends and always well-spoken, smiling and getting along with everybody - just one of those guys you love to hate," he said with sarcasm as the crowd quietly chuckled. "Of course, those were my own insecurities talking. He asked a few of us to join him for a beer and the rest is history.
"Greg is, was and will remain someone you admired; who made you want to be a better person ... . "
At Wells' wedding, Townsend was best man and later became the godfather of his youngest son. He made it a point to send foreign currency to the Wells children whenever he was abroad. Recalling the image of his best friend on the brink of death at the medical facility, Wells said the scene was only tempered by the presence of his loved ones and the countless others who admired him.
"Seeing the responses of some of his colleagues and Soldiers, especially that of Sgt. Maj. Eric Cantrell, really did me in," he said, becoming serious and emotional. "The same guy I've admired and loved for years continued to have the same effect on people that he always had on me."
Cantrell, who has known the Townsend family the past 12 years, served under the colonel when he was a battalion commander. He said he knew him as a friend, father and Soldier and came to learn he was quintessentially a family man as he relayed stories to audience members about how he beamed anytime he discussed his wife and kids.
"No matter which one of you he was talking about," said Cantrell to Townsend's family members, "his face lit up like you were perfect in his eyes."
Devastating to family, the impact of Townsend's death also reached far into the depths of the Dragon Brigade. Townsend was known as a hands-on leader who was frequently seen at field training sites - his face no less painted in camouflage - assessing conditions, making observations and connecting to troops.
In reference to the latter, his approachability, compassion and ability to empathize made him stand out, said Sgt. 1st Class Cheryl D. McNutt-Kalbach, the brigade's sexual assault response coordinator.
"He was an amazing man, and everybody loved him," she said, also remembering Townsend as a rare combination of a professional standard-bearer, inspirational leader and humble warrior. "He did not let his rank control the person he was. Many people are intimidated when it comes to colonels, but he always made it so that no matter what the issue, I could discuss things with him, even if was calling him at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning to tell him about a case.
"He always answered ... and never in a hostile tone," she continued. "He made it easier not to tiptoe around things."
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Jonathan Fowler, 23rd QM Bde. chaplain, said he frequently interacted with Townsend and found him transparent and his leadership inclusive.
"The amazing thing about his leadership is that he created such a 'followship,'" he said. "People in the brigade, on the installation, just wanted to follow him. I sensed they saw in him a man of authenticity. He was in every sense a leader from the standpoint of knowing what he wanted to bring people, and he had that charisma to engender trust and confidence that made people want to join in."
Appropriately, more than 200 Soldiers had gathered on the ninth floor of VCU's hospital just before Townsend's death to show support for the Soldier and his family. The mostly uniform-clad visitors joined medical personnel in holding hands in the hallway as the colonel was taken to an organ donor operating room.
Fowler, also present, said it was a usual hospital ritual for those donating organs, but noted a palpable sense of emotion he has never known in 30 years of ministry.
"There were tears and Soldiers saluted as the gurney was pushed by," he recalled. "There was a real deep sense of both sorrow, respect, love and honor - and a bewilderment mixed with 'this is where we need to be, this is the right spot, at this moment in our lives.'
"People were really touched," Fowler continued. "I wouldn't have expected that kind of manifestation of love and respect."
McBride noted he and others who gathered at the hospital were told five people were awaiting organ donations and that Townsend "would offer life to each and every one of them that evening."
From that standpoint, not only did Col. Greg Townsend die in service to his country, he died in service to humanity. He will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery on a date to be determined.