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Honoring those who fought and died in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn
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Army Staff Sgt. Joseph R. Ray

Died March 12, 2006 Serving During Operation Enduring Freedom

29, of Asheville, N.C.; assigned to the 391st Engineer Battalion, Army Reserve, Asheville, N.C.; killed March 12 when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee during combat operations west of Asadabad, Afghanistan. Also killed were: Sgt. Kevin D. Akins, Sgt. Anton J. Hiett and Spc. Joshua L. Hill.

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N.C.-based best friends buried hours apart

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Two North Carolina-based soldiers described as inseparable buddies were buried Tuesday, nine days after they and two other men, one from Indiana, were killed when an explosive device struck their vehicle in Afghanistan.

“He was one of my best friends, like one of my brothers,” Staff Sgt. Matt Jacobsen said of Sgt. Kevin Akins, who was buried in Burnsville. “I knew if I ever had a problem, Big Ache was right there.”

Three hours after the funeral for the Oglethorpe, Ga. resident, hundreds said goodbye in Asheville to Akins’ best friend, Staff Sgt. Joe Ray of Candler.

Spc. Joshua Hill of Fowlerton, Ind., and Sgt. Anton Hiett of Mount Airy were also inside the Humvee and died in the blast. Hill’s funeral was scheduled for Wednesday at Madison-Grant High School in Fairmount, Ind.

He was part of the Asheville-based battalion while Hiett was assigned to the battalion’s headquarters company, based in Greenville, S.C.

The four Army reservists died March 12 when an explosive device struck their armored Humvee. They were part of the Asheville-based Company A, 391st Engineering Battalion.

Akins and Jacobsen left last year to dismantle land mines in Afghanistan. They had also done a tour in Iraq.

Staff Sgt. William Decatur talked about the first time he and Akins came under enemy fire in Iraq.

“Both of us jumped up and took off running, but you know what? When he was running, he ran at the bullets,” Decatur said. “That’s who he was.”

Ray’s wife had a 5-year-old son who lost his father in a vehicle accident in 2002. Ray had filled the paternal role since he married the boy’s mother, Annastasia, on July 4, 2004.

“I just miss him every day,” the boy, Desmond, said at Ray’s funeral. “I love him. He was the only one like my daddy.”

Desmond then offered a slow, formal salute while standing beside Ray’s flag-draped casket.

“I never knew I could be loved the way Joe Ray loved me so completely and so true,” the boy’s mother told the audience. “I am so blessed to have been Joe Ray’s wife. I just want to say, now and forever, I love this man.”

— Associated Press / Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times

Four soldiers killed in Afghanistan with Carolinas-based battalion

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The four soldiers killed Sunday by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan were members of a Carolinas-based Army Reserve battalion, including a Mount Airy man who sought deployment to a combat zone, officials said Tuesday.

Sgt. Anton Hiett, 25, was among a group of soldiers clearing a route in eastern Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device went off, killing him and three others.

His widow, Misty Hiett, said in a telephone interview that Hiett asked to transfer to the 391st Engineering Battalion, which has companies based in Asheville and Spartanburg, S.C., when it looked like his reserve unit would not be deployed.

Also killed in the blast were Staff Sgt. Joe Ray, of Candler; Spc. Joshua Hill of Fowlerton, Ind.; and Sgt. Kevin Akins of Oglethorpe, Ga., said Maj. William Ritter of the 81st Regional Readiness Command in Birmingham, Ala.

Akins, Ray and Hill were part of the Asheville-based Company A of the 391st Engineering Battalion. Hiett was assigned to the battalion’s headquarters company, based in Greenville, S.C., Ritter said.

Misty Hiett, 23, said her husband had just relocated to the area where the attack occurred, identified as the Pech Valley in Kunar province by military spokesman Col. Jim Yonts in Kabul, Afghanistan. She said her husband called Saturday night after he arrived, telling her he had a mission scheduled for the next day.

“He was going to call me when he got back — which he didn’t,” she said.

The couple have a 2-year-old daughter Kyra, whom Hiett saw when he was home on leave in September, Misty Hiett said.

Hiett said her husband, who drove a truck for Swift Transportation, joined the military out of high school and “wanted to go help out” during the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. After transferring to the 391st, he deployed April 22.

Ray, 29, worked in maintenance at the Buncombe County detention center in Asheville. He had a young stepson and a daughter who recently turned 2, and had already served a tour in Iraq clearing land mines.

“Even in the roughest situation, he was always smiling,” Sgt. Shannon Fischer, 29, of Hendersonville, a staff administrator with the Army Reserves office in Greenville, S.C., told the Asheville Citizen-Times. “He died a hero.”

Hill, a 2002 graduate of Madison-Grant High School in Fairmount, Ind., joined the Army Reserve when his wife, Alexis, was expecting their first child who’s now 6, the soldier’s father said. The couple also has a 1-year-old daughter, Ariana.

“He thought it was the best thing to do because he was having a baby,” Terry Lee Hill said.

Joshua Hill was studying nursing at Indiana Business College, and was an avid NASCAR fan, his father said. He had already completed a military tour in Iraq, and was set to return home from Afghanistan in about a month, his father said.

“He was 30 days, 12 hours and 20 minutes from home,” Terry Hill said. “He had it all figured out exactly.”

There are about 130 soldiers in the battalion’s Company A, and 570 in all. The battalion’s combat engineers work on roads and clear minefields.

As of March 13, at least 221 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the Defense Department. Of those, the military reports 134 were killed by hostile action.

— Tim Whitmire, Associated Press

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