Remembering the fallen

A tribute to troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan

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Philip Svitak

Killed on March 4, 2002

Nebraska bid farewell Saturday to a native son, Sgt. Philip Svitak, killed in combat in Afghanistan.

More than 300 people, including Svitak's parents and several other relatives, attended a memorial service for Svitak in Fremont's National Guard Armory.

Svitak, who was born in Lincoln and grew up in Fremont, was one of eight American servicemen killed in a battle in early March. They were fighting against forces of the terrorist group al - Qaida and the Taliban in mountainous terrain.

He was buried with full military honors March 14 in Joplin, Mo., where his parents moved a few years after his 1989 graduation from Fremont High School.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars and Civil Air Patrol organized the Fremont memorial service. Svitak, 31, served in the Civil Air Patrol as a youth.

On Saturday, people sat on metal folding chairs on a tile floor ringed by lockers along concrete walls, under a lofty ceiling with open wooden trusses.

Speakers addressed the crowd from a podium between flags of the United States and the Civil Air Patrol. An easel held photographs of Svitak in his Special Operations beret, and with his wife, Laura, and two sons, 2 - year - old Nolan and 5 - year - old Ethan.

A folding table draped in a white cloth bore mementos: a blue ballcap with Svitak's Night Stalkers regiment logo; his beret; an American flag from his funeral, folded in a triangle; a flag quilted by a cousin the day his death became known; a single white candle, burning.

While the surroundings were stark, the memories, and the emotions they evoked, were rich as a procession of speakers told stories about Svitak and paid homage to their fallen friend.

Smiles opened at a yarn of how Svitak and childhood friend Shannon Stone dressed in camouflage and packed canteens to hunt rabbits in Fremont. Laughter bubbled up at a tale of Svitak's packing a month's worth of food for a weekend Civil Air Patrol excursion. Tears rolled as a bell tolled eight times for the soldiers who died March 4, as wizened veterans in the Fremont Honor Guard played taps, and as a former squadron commander of Svitak's Civil Air Patrol unit in Fremont began his address in a quavering voice.

"We're all like family," said Steve Kuddes, of Fremont. "And it's hard."

Friends, family and dignitaries recalled his honor - filled days in the Civil Air Patrol. They remembered his military career: two tours of duty in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) from 1989 - 94, and 1998 until his death; more than 1,200 hours as a crew chief and engineer in peacetime and combat, including the Persian Gulf War and numerous exercises in support of Special Operations Forces; awards and decorations including two Army Commendation Medals, the Army Achievement Medal and the Aircraft Crewmember Badge.

Svitak logged more than 150 hours of combat flight time during missions in Afghanistan before he was killed.

He died during Operation Anaconda. The U.S. and allied offensive encountered heavier - than - expected resistance as it sought to clean out what was believed to be one of the last remaining al - Qaida strongholds in Afghanistan. His helicopter went down while attempting to rescue a fellow soldier, and he and five others died in the ensuing gunbattle.

"That fact that Phil perished while rescuing someone shows that Phil's mission in life was constant," said Kuddes' brother, Jim, also a former Civil Air Patrol Fremont squadron commander.

After the service, people lined up to hug Svitak's parents, Richard and Roseann Svitak of Neosho, Mo. Sgt. Svitak's wife did not attend because of the two youngsters.

Misty Janssen, a Svitak cousin from Omaha, said Laura Svitak and the rest of the family appreciated the service.(1,3/25/02)

"It means everything to them," Janssen said. "They haven't seen the outpouring here that my parents (Ray and Betty Svitak in Fremont) have seen."

As she spoke, Roseann Svitak was ringed by Civil Air Patrol members from Douglas County - teen - agers who are too young to have known her son, but who may follow his footsteps into the war on terrorism.

With a fingertip, the fallen soldier's mother brushed a bar on a boy's crisp blue uniform shirt. She gave him a smile.

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