By David Ruderman, USAG Vicenza Public Affairs OfficeSeptember 7, 2012
VICENZA, Italy - The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team Family memorialized three of their own Sept. 6 in a ceremony at the post chapel on Caserma Ederle.
Close to 300 Soldiers, Family members, friends and staff filled the chapel to pay tribute to three Sky Soldiers killed in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Pfc. Andrew J. Keller, 22, of Tigard, Ore., died Aug. 15 in Charkh, when enemy forces attacked his unit with small arms fire. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Keller is survived by his parents, Jeffrey and Kimberly Keller, and his brother, Derek.
Spc. James A. Justice, 21, of Grover, N.C., died Aug. 17 at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, from injuries suffered Aug. 14 from enemy small-arms fire in Wardak province. Justice served with the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment. He is survived by his wife, Sissy, their daughters, Harley, Laura and Breonna, his parents, Randall and Melissa Justice, and five siblings, Cailee, Josh, Joe, Roger and Lisa.
Pfc. Shane W. Cantu, 20, of Corunna, Mich., died Aug. 28, in Charkh of shrapnel wounds. Cantu served with 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment. He is survived by his parents, Mike and Jennifer Clarke, and his sisters, Shiann, Jordyn, Shanel, Breann and Haley.
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) David Hall gave an invocation to begin the ceremony.
"Heavenly Father, we humble ourselves before your power and wisdom. We ask you to bless the Sky Soldier ceremony today as we remember and honor Spc. James Justice, Pfc. Andrew Keller and Pfc. Shane Cantu. Grant your comfort and peace upon their families, our Sky Soldier family and this community as we grieve together," he said.
Capt. Richard "Chris" Gasperini, followed with a eulogy for Justice.
"James was an upbeat kid growing up, full of life with a great sense of humor, characterized by his signature smile," he said.
Justice set himself apart by his drive to excel and to serve those around him, Gasperini said. He recounted Justice's lifelong devotion to the New Beginnings Church of Jesus Christ, which formed his character and directed his development to adulthood.
"His devout faith in God became a cornerstone of his life, as did answering the call to serve others," said Gasperini, emphasizing Justice's devotion to his family. His wife and daughters were "the light of his life, the source of his pride and his reason for being," he said.
Justice joined the Army in 2009 and served at Camp Casey, Korea, before being stationed in Vicenza with the 173rd ABCT. "As his battle buddies have stated time and time again, James was always striving to be the best, always giving it 100 percent and always placing the mission and the well-being of others before himself," Gasperini said.
Justice deployed to Afghanistan in July. He was serving as a fire team leader, taking the point on a dismounted patrol, when he was seriously wounded Aug. 14. Justice was evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he died Aug. 17.
"A selfless servant to his church, his country, his family, his friends, his Soldiers, and to perfect strangers, James set an example to which most of us can only hope to aspire. And he did so with a sincere heart, a boisterous laugh and his signature grin, that no one will ever forget," Gasperini said.
''Now would be the time that I would say a eulogy, instead I'm going to just do the only thing I know how to do -- I'm going to talk about James," said Pfc. James Romanello, one of Justice's comrades, in tribute to the fallen Soldier.
"For anyone who knew him, you knew that he was a proud man, and for good reason. He loved his family dearly. Every day he would brag about how blessed he was and the joys and struggles of family life."
Romanello confirmed Justice's devotion to God and family, and to his calling to be a Sky Soldier.
"All he would ever talk about was deploying and, I quote, 'being there with his guys.' I remember when we found out that not everyone could go on this deployment right away, he was one of the men on second wave. He was so mad. He made sure we all knew it.
"We're talking about a man that, whether we're in Graf, at one of the many training rotations, or sitting around cleaning the weapon for the hundredth time, his story always came back to the same thing: 'Man, I can't wait to get my CIB, my combat patch and a Purple Heart.'
"A lot of people will never understand that statement or his desire. There are only a select few that not only understand the calling of what we do, but also the honor we feel while serving.
"With all this, we still miss him tremendously," said Romanello.
Capt. Bradley Benjamin, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry, rear detachment commander, eulogized Keller and Cantu.
"I am honored and humbled to stand before you today to speak on behalf of the entire First Rock Family as we remember two heroes and outstanding paratroopers, Pfc. Andrew Keller and Pfc. Shane Cantu, both of who were members of Legion Company," he said.
"Both at the core were very idealistic people with a vision much bigger than themselves. Both were outstanding scholar-athletes and leaders prior to joining the military. Both went to college and decided they had a higher calling in life, and both found this calling while serving among the 0.45 percent of Americans who carry this burden today."
Recounting vignettes contributed by their fellow Soldiers, friends and teachers, Bradley related that Cantu was to have been the best man at Keller's wedding. After Keller's death, Cantu memorialized his friend in a ceremony downrange less than two weeks before he himself was mortally wounded.
"Displayed before you today are two paratroopers, sons, brothers and friends, our heroes, who together paid the ultimate price, carried the heaviest of burdens, supported their friends and opposed their foes.
"We are forever in debt to these heroes who fought simply for their brothers on the left and the right. That being said, the mission forward continues," Benjamin said.
Pfc. Jonathan Smith described his friend Keller as "one of a kind. He was intelligent, kind, huge-hearted, a devoted patriot. He was dedicated to his job and he did it well. And more than that, he was dedicated to his friends and family. The love that Andrew displayed for everything he did and everyone he met was astounding.
"I personally believe that anyone who had him as a part of their lives, no matter how minute, is blessed, even if it was just to see his bright smile.
"One smile from Andrew could change your entire day.
"He will never be forgotten, that I can personally promise you," Smith said.
Cantu's platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Luis Matias, described Cantu as a super-motivated paratrooper, constantly concerned for the welfare of his fellow Soldiers.
"He was an overall amazing brother and friend. It's absolutely impossible to describe Cantu in these few moments. Anyone who had the honor of knowing him, or even speaking to him in passing, consider yourself lucky. Not every day do you meet a Soldier of that calibre.
"You will be missed dearly, and the guys in the fight, know that you have two of the best watching and protecting you," Matias said.
Chaplain Hall recited the 23rd Psalm and extended his condolences to the families of the fallen.
"To the Family that is the 173rd, to this community, thank you for coming. We have each come here today with various emotions: sadness, disbelief, an ache for just one more phone call.
"Some of us might feel angry; maybe some of us have come and are just trying to make sense of it all. We may feel many things or be numb at this point and feel nothing at all. We may even share a little laugh, like we did earlier when we remember some funny moment. We have come to be around those who have suffered in this loss.
"We are a family. But in the end it is just very difficult," he said.
Hall related the story of Lazarus as described in the Gospel of John, and how Jesus wept for his departed friend.
"In fact, those watching him said, 'See how much he loved him.' If it was OK for Jesus to cry, it's OK for us to cry," he said.
"Sometimes we may be tempted to think that God is far away, that he does not really 'get it.' But God gets our pain.
"In the days ahead I hope that each one of us takes the time to travel through the powerful emotions of grief. It's not an easy road. But for our own health, it is a necessary journey. And we do not have to travel alone. We have one another and we have the God who gets it."
The memorial ceremony for the three Sky Soldiers concluded with 1st Sgt. Timothy Jensen calling the roll call for the departed, Sky Soldiers stationed outside the chapel firing a final volley in honor of the fallen and a lone bugler playing Taps.