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- The People Behind The Sacrifice
Army Staff Sgt. James A. Justice
Died April 23, 2011 Serving During Operation Enduring Freedom
32, of Grimes, Iowa; assigned to 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment, Le Mars, Iowa; died April 23 in Sadigan Village, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained when insurgents attacked his unit with small-arms fire.
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1 Iowan killed, 1 injured in attack in Afghanistan
By Tyler O'Neil
The Des Moines (Iowa) Register
An Iowa National Guard soldier from Grimes died in combat April 23 while trying to rescue the crew of a downed helicopter in Afghanistan.
Staff Sgt. James A. Justice, 32, is the third Iowan to perish this month in the 9-year-old war. He volunteered to go on this deployment. A soldier from Des Moines, Spc. Zachary Durham, 21, was injured.
Their unit returned from a patrol early April 23 and found out two people aboard a reconnaissance and light attack helicopter had made a hard landing and needed help, Iowa National Guard Col. Gregory Hapgood said at a news conference April 24 in Johnston, Iowa.
The Iowans’ rescue team came under fire shortly after landing, and both soldiers were hit by small-arms fire about 10 a.m. Afghan time. Justice died at the scene but Durham was evacuated.
The incident took place in the Alah Say district of Kapisa province, not far from Kabul, the capital, officials said.
Durham is at a hospital at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. His condition was not available.
“I think if you look anywhere in that Pakistan border area right now, it doesn’t matter which province you’re in, there is a lot of activity,” Hapgood said. “When that helicopter went down, certainly that would be a magnet for insurgents to have an opportunity to kill Americans.”
Justice was assigned to the 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment, based in Le Mars.
Sgt. Kevin Schaefer worked with Justice at Camp Dodge. Schaefer described him as a charismatic, natural leader and an integral part of his unit’s community. Schaefer said Justice was always quick to make a joke.
“He had such a quick wit that he would insert a joke and it would take you two minutes before you realized he was making fun of you,” Schaefer said. “He was a rare breed.”
Justice also had a passion for the Guard, Schaefer said. Despite having served his fair share overseas, Justice always felt as though he was being left behind when he was in the states. So, when the 113th Cavalry was in need of an experienced NCO, Justice jumped at the opportunity, Schaefer said.
“He always wanted to get back into the fight,” Schaefer said.
A close family friend said that Justice loved helping others and making them happy.
“He was honorable — you know that from the way he died,” said Judy Erb, a friend of the Justice family. “He’s a hero, just like all those other boys over there.”
Justice, who was married with a 3-year-old daughter, is the third member of the Iowa Guard in Afghanistan to be killed this month.
Erb said she met Justice when he became friends with her son, Jason, in high school. Her son was one year older than Justice, but the boys became inseparable, “like brothers,” she said.
Both played on the football team for IKM-Manning, with Justice as a receiver and Jason Erb as a tight end and lineman. Justice grew up in Manilla and enjoyed the horseshoes competition at the annual town festival and late-night parties with friends, Erb said.
Erb and Justice remained best friends after graduating from high school in 1996 and 1997. Both were drawn to the military, and Jason Erb became an Air Force pilot.
“They have an Air Force tradition where when you get your pilot’s wings, you don’t put them on, you break them in half,” Judy Erb said. The pilot keeps one half and gives the other half to his best friend. Justice received half of Jason Erb’s wings.
His mother said Jason is trying to fly back from his deployment in South Korea to be at Justice’s funeral and reunite the two pieces.
Justice was unable to attend Jason Erb’s wedding — he was deployed in Iraq at the time — but he served as the honorary best man from overseas. When Justice married last April, Jason Erb was his best man.
Justice had a jovial spirit and often found it difficult to be serious because he loved making others laugh, Erb said. Erb said he volunteered for a deployment to Afghanistan even though he was given an opportunity to stay behind.
“He would have never thought for a moment about helping someone out, he would always just jump in,” Erb said.
Justice’s parents, Lillian and Larry, still live in Manilla. His wife, Amanda, and 3-year-old daughter, Caydence, live in Grimes in central Iowa, Erb said.
Justice’s family issued this statement through the Guard:
“James Alan Justice meant many things to every person he encountered. He was the funny best friend named “Juice” that could be counted on when needing to be cheered up; the uncle who always knew just what to say and when to hand out hugs; the son who was his parents’ pride and joy; the father who loved his little girl more than anything in the world and couldn’t wait to have more children; and the husband who loved to put a smile on his wife’s face. One thing James was to everyone was the ultimate soldier. He loved the military and he looked forward to every deployment. While we were stunned and extremely saddened to learn of his tragic death, we all take solace knowing that James died doing what he loved best: serving his country beside the men and women he revered and trusted.
“Through his four tours of duty, James had many accomplishments but above all, he made lifelong friendships. The outpouring of support and prayers during this time from friends, fellow Soldiers and strangers alike has been astonishing, but proved what we all knew: that James was a one-of-a-kind guy and deeply loved by all who had the opportunity to know him and serve with him. We would like to take this opportunity to thank the Iowa National Guard for the opportunities they have provided to James over the past 13 years. Additionally, we would like to acknowledge all of his fellow Iowa National Guard soldiers both at home and serving overseas. May God be with you always.
“We are sure that you can understand and will honor our request for family privacy at this time, as we are focused on working with military officials to return James’ body home for military service and burial. We thank you for your thoughts, prayers and kindness at this extremely difficult time. We are deeply saddened by our loss, but extremely proud of the honorable way he served America as a leader in the U.S. Army. We will remember him, his strength, his infectious sense of humor, his faith in God, and his love for his family, friends and country with great pride.”
About 2,800 Iowa National Guard troops deployed to eastern Afghanistan last fall. The three men killed this month are the first casualties, although several soldiers have sustained serious injuries.
Sgt. Brent Maher, 31, of Honey Creek died April 11 when a bomb blew up under the armored truck in which he was riding during a patrol near the city of Gardez in eastern Afghanistan. Spc. Donald Nichols, 21, of Shell Rock was killed April 13 in Laghman province when his armored truck was hit by a bomb in the road.
This is the first time since 2005 that three members of the military from Iowa have been killed overseas in as few as 13 days. Two guardsmen and an Army soldier died in Iraq over the course of 10 days in February and March that year.
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Childhood friend recalls fallen guardsman
By Tony Leys
The Des Moines (Iowa) Register
MANNING, Ia. — James Justice’s best friend ended his eulogy on May 4 by asking the audience to send a message to the 2,800 other Iowa guardsmen serving in the area of Afghanistan where Justice was killed.
“Tell them we are thinking about them. Tell them to come home safe. Tell them to do their job and do it with honor, and to just finish their job over there,” Jason Erb said. “Don’t let James’ death go in vain. Don’t let any of their deaths go in vain.”
Justice, 32, of Grimes, was a staff sergeant in the Guard’s 1-113th Cavalry Squadron. He was killed in a firefight with insurgents April 23 while his unit tried to rescue crew members of an Army helicopter that had crash-landed. It was the third Iowa National Guard death in Afghanistan in less than a month.
Erb, an Air Force major, grew up with Justice in the small town of Manilla. He recalled his friend as a fun-loving, prank-pulling kid. Justice was a die-hard Hawkeye fan who gave Erb endless grief for joining Iowa State University’s football team. Erb recalled giving home-game tickets to his friend, who would promptly buy a T-shirt for whichever team was playing the Cyclones that day. “Not only would he not root for Iowa State. He would root for the opposing team, while sitting in the parents’ section,” Erb recalled to the knowing laughter from more than 1,000 people who packed the funeral in the IKM-Manning High School gym.
Justice joined the Guard in 1998, and was deployed to Kuwait, Egypt and Iraq. He was held back last summer from the current deployment to Afghanistan because of back trouble, but he volunteered to rejoin his comrades this spring when his cavalry troop ran short of sergeants. He had been in Afghanistan for just a few weeks before his death.
Hundreds of people waited in line for a half-hour or more to get into the gym. Near the school doors, they passed members of Justice’s cavalry unit who were holding a horse, with a rifle in a saddle scabbard and a pair of boots placed backward in the stirrups.
Inside the school before the funeral, the soldier lay in an open casket, complete with a picture of the boy he used to be. The mourners included scores of soldiers and veterans in uniform, plus Gov. Terry Branstad.
Survivors include Justice’s wife, Amanda, and their 3-year-old daughter, Caydence.
Jessica Fine, a friend of the couple, said James and Amanda were both stubborn, passionate people who had dramatic arguments, then would send tear-inducing love notes to each other on Facebook.
He also loved to spend time with his daughter, Fine said.
“Most guys would not be successful at spending all day playing with a little girl interested in makeup, sparkles or anything Barbie,” she said. “James, on the other hand, let go of his soldier instincts to just say no to everything pink and embraced his girly side.”
Fine said Justice was proud of his service but preferred to be known as a regular guy.
“He died serving the country that he loved,” Fine said. “And I can’t wait until the day when I can tell Caydence about what a hero and honorable man her daddy really was.”
Friend Jeremy Vennink recalled James as a magnetic, outgoing person. The two of them could walk into a bar where they didn’t know anyone, “and when we left, he’d have 10 new friends — or four new enemies,” Vennink joked. “It was one way or the other, every time.”
Maj. Gary Selof, a Guard chaplain, told the mourners that there is no explaining the sudden death of a young person like Justice.
“Everything inside of us wants to scream, ‘No, it’s not supposed to be this way! He’s supposed to live to be 90 and have great-grandchildren bouncing on his knee, and then die at a ripe old age,’ ” Selof said. “But that wasn’t meant to be. ... I wish I could stand here today and tell you that if James didn’t go to Afghanistan, he would be alive today. But I don’t know that.”
At the end of the service, military members came forward in pairs to solemnly salute the casket. Then five Guard soldiers and Erb, the Air Force major, wheeled their friend out to a waiting hearse.
Burial will be later at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.