EDITORIAL/Not just another hero
Thursday, September 2, 2004 3:00 AM
Matt Stovall's smile was contagious and so were the energy and drive with which he awoke every morning, his fellow soldiers who served with him in Iraq say, and that drove them to follow him at all costs, even in the hellish landscape of war.
With his death at the hands of enemy forces in Iraq last week, there is comfort in the knowledge that 1st Lt. Matthew Ryan Stovall believed in the cause for which he willingly sacrificed his life.
He understood the greater evil that threatens our freedom and was enthusiastic about planting the seeds of democracy in a pivotal but unstable region of the world.
And there is comfort, as the commander of the Mississippi National Guard observed, that Stovall knew another who sacrificed, who willingly laid down His life for the sins of the world. And, because of his faith in Christ, Lt. Stovall enjoys eternal rest from the toils and cares of this life.
The tributes that have poured in from those he served with in battle are profoundly moving.
Several members of a transportation unit to which Stovall was just recently attached sent e-mails to his family this week expressing their love and admiration for their fallen leader.
SPC Keaton Eliot Nielsen was one of those who wrote. He told the family that the English language has no words to convey the love Stovall had for his platoon - nor the feeling of loss which they all suffer.
"As the A-Team platoon leader, Matt was busy and sometimes very difficult to find. The easiest way I found to locate him was to follow the sound of laughter and trail of smiling people and there, in the center of a group of people joking and laughing would be LT with a grin. I could never quite understand how this man, away from his wife and son, could possibly be so happy so often, but that is how he was. Always with a contagious smile trying to make light of every situation."
Only 25 years old, Stovall believed in his mission to Iraq and relayed that to a class of Philadelphia Elementary School 5th graders with whom he communicated on a weekly basis last year, telling them, among other things, American soldiers were doing many good things such as re-opening schools and restoring clean drinking water.
He would tell the students they should appreciate being free and being able to attend school. And he also cautioned them not to believe everything they saw on the news - that he and the other soldiers were actually doing lots of good.
Stovall's death is the second in Iraq for the National Guard's 367th Maintenance Company based here, a terrific blow to this community and the families of the men and women still serving.
Sgt. Joshua S. Ladd was remembered as a hero with a sacrificial heart after he died May 1 in Iraq. The 20-year-old Ladd received a hero's farewell. And the turnout Sunday was as much for Ladd as it was Stovall because we have been bound by their deaths and inspired by their lives to be better Americans.
The individual acts of patriotism by ordinary people had an extraordinary impact. To see both sides of Beacon Street through downtown packed with mourners drove some to tears. A large headline in Mississippi's largest newspaper proclaimed: "Town shows respect, not bitterness."
The outpouring along the entire nine-mile route Stovall's funeral procession took to the Coldwater Baptist Church Cemetery was moving.
Mourners, some of them with American flags and handmade banners, stood in parking lots, in front of churches, in their front yards and alongside the highway as the procession passed.
They did so because of the debt owed to the Ladd and Stovall families.
Stovall responded to an e-mail from the students one day last year asking, among other things, if he'd seen any animals.
"I've seen some donkeys, camels, scorpions, and some cool birds," Stovall wrote, which reminds us of what Lt. Col. Tim Collins told the battle group of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish in a pep talk 20 miles from the Iraqi border as the U.S. deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq ticked away last year.
"Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there.
"You will see things that no man could pay to see and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis.
"You will be embarrassed by their hospitality even though they have nothing."
Stovall had evidently experienced at least a glimpse of that Iraq and was driven by serving the greater good of mankind.
In the pep talk Lt. Collins spoke of those who would not see the end of the campaign. "We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back. There will be no time for sorrow."
And indeed we feel compassion for the men and women Lt. Stovall left behind in Iraq who must continue the fight for freedom. But we imagine that with his characteristic broad grin the lieutenant might tell his band of brothers in Iraq if he could: "Do not mourn me dead! Carry on the mission - but when you die make sure you go up and not down."
Lt. Stovall was not perfect, as glowing as the comments have been. None are sinless. But his commitment to his Faith, his family and country are a model for all to follow.
Matt. Matty. Lieutenant. Or just one of the Stovall boys. Matt is not just another American hero, he is one of ours and we must never take for granted the liberties for which he laid down his life.