Community to say final goodbyes to fallen sailors

The Navy will say goodbye to three of its own who died in Iraq at a memorial service Monday at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11 will hold a private ceremony at the Navy base in Oak Harbor for the family and friends of EOD Chief Petty Officer Gregory John Billiter, Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Adam McSween and Petty Officer 2nd Class Curtis Ralph Hall.

The sailors were killed when they were traveling in a five-vehicle convoy that was on patrol in Hawijah, Iraq on April 6. A rocket hit the sailors’ Humvee and mortally wounded all three.

The sailors were the first from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island to be killed in the Iraq War.

Navy Cmdr. Martin Beck, commanding officer of EODMU-11, was at a loss for words to describe the death of the three sailors.

“As a commanding officer, I am expected to have the answers. When all seems hopeless, I am expected to demonstrate unshakeable resolve and strength, plotting a course to make the matter right,” Beck said at one of the funerals. “I regret to report that I do not possess these qualities.”

EODMU-11 is an explosive ordnance unit that disarms bombs and explosive devices. There are 158 men and women assigned to the unit, and its sailors have deployed repeatedly to Iraq.

The Navy awarded Billiter, McSween and Hall the Bronze Star with Valor posthumously. The medal is given for heroic or meritorious service in action against the enemy. The sailors were also awarded the Purple Heart.

According to the sailors’ citations for the Bronze Star, the group responded to 13 roadside bomb incidents, an incident involving a bomb in a vehicle, as well as 13 other incidents involving suspected “improvised explosive devices” or fake IEDs. The team also helped collect and destroy more than 2 1/2 tons of explosives.

They had been in Iraq since January.

Representatives of the families will be attending the service at the Navy base in Oak Harbor.

Greg Billiter —

An achiever in

everything he did

Billiter, 36, was the tactical commander in the Humvee when the convoy was attacked. He specialized in dismantling explosive devices.

During his first two tours of duty, Billiter dove for mines off the coast of Iraq.

This tour, he was the tactical commander in a convoy conducting patrols in Iraq when his vehicle was hit, Beck said.

His family remembered him as an achiever in all that he tackled. But his mother Pat Billiter said the sailor will be remembered mostly for his softer side.

“He had to be macho for the job, but he was different with us,” Pat Billiter said from her Villa Hills, Ky. home.

“He had to be the Number 1. He had to be the best for himself,” she said.

Yet, he was always humble about his achievements.

“We never knew about any of the awards,” his mother said. In his 15-year Navy career, there were quite a few.

Billiter finished high school early and graduated from the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, with a marketing degree when he was only 19.

Always ready for the next challenge, he enlisted in the Navy in 1992.

Pat Billiter said she didn’t want him to go to Iraq. Not because of politics, but because as a mother she was afraid.

“The only reason we didn’t want him to go was because we didn’t want to lose him,” she said.

The sailor was dedicated to his mission just as he was to anything else.

“He was committed. It was his way of protecting our freedom and making sure that these people will eventually know freedom,” she said.

Billiter leaves behind his wife April and son Cooper. They still live in Oak Harbor.

“We miss April. We love her,” Pam Billiter said. And even though she has often longed to have her daughter-in-law and grandson close in recent weeks, she said April is well taken care of on Whidbey Island.

“We’re glad she is where she is, because she has so much support there,” Billiter said.

She recalled the times her son and his family came to visit Kentucky.

“Greg was a tremendous father. He didn’t babysit, he was parenting,” she said recalling her son tucking Cooper in or reading him bedtime stories.

“He tried to be with Cooper as much as he could.”

She said her son liked the simple things in life, such as her home cooking, especially tuna noodle casserole.

And he liked sports. He had his teams, but rooted for the Cincinnati Bengals no matter how far the Navy took him from home.

“He’d always root for the Bengals. Then he’d root for Seattle when the Bengals were out,” she said. “He liked hometown sports.”

Billiter was laid to rest April 14 in his hometown, where he had planned to retire one day, his mother said.

Adam McSween —

God, community came first

McSween, 26, was a passenger in the Humvee when it was hit.

He leaves behind a wife, Erin, and two daughters; Lilly, 5, and Gwyneth, 2.

McSween grew up in Valdosta, Ga., a fast-growing southern city that’s the last stop on Interstate 75 before the Florida state line. It’s also home to a state university and an Air Force base.

John Klimko, Jr. was McSween’s youth minister at Central Avenue Church of Christ and has known the sailor since his family first moved to Valdosta in the early 1980s.

“He was a great kid growing up. He was very happy-go-lucky, very easy to work with. He was just a blessing to a lot of people when he was here,” Klimko said.

“When he was a little boy he looked like Beaver Cleaver, yet he did not grow up in a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ world,” Klimko added. “He grew up in the same world everybody else did, a world with its ups and downs.”

McSween was well known at his church and by others in town for putting others first.

“He was just a very special fellow,” Klimko said, recalling how McSween would come early Sunday morning to help out at the church, then take care of shut-ins who couldn’t make it to the service. Later, he would stick around and do yard work for them.

“He did a lot for a lot of people,” Klimko said.

Klimko said McSween had talked about becoming a youth minister himself, later moving to go to school at York College in Nebraska.

“When Adam got there, he met his wife and they went off and did a year of missionary work in Japan. And the military made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Klimko said.

McSween studied history at York College and graduated in 2001, enlisting in the Navy after his wife graduated in 2003.

McSween was on his second tour of Iraq at the time of his death. A memorial service Saturday in Valdosta drew a packed house; his friends from elementary through high school attended, as did officials from the city council all the way up to Congress.

Residents in his second hometown of York lined the streets of downtown when he was brought home; he was laid to rest at Greenwood Cemetery with full military honors on April 17.

“I want everyone to remember that year and decades from now, Adam will always be remembered at our church and a lot of different churches in this community.

“He’s not going to be remembered for how he died, but because of how he lived. They are not going to remember the tragedy of his death; they are going to remember the joy of his life,” Klimko said.

In Oak Harbor, McSween went to church with state Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.

She said she was deeply saddened by his death.

“Adam had a quiet strength. He just was very special,” Bailey said.

She described him as a man interested in his community, church programs and politics.

When Bailey first met the McSween family, she was running for election. McSween asked if he could help.

“I remember Adam and Erin marching in a parade,” she said.

Bailey said she thinks often of Erin and the girls.

“She is a strong Navy wife,” Bailey said.

Curtis Hall —

A hero long before

the Navy

Hall, 24, was driving the Humvee when his convoy was attacked. It was his second tour to Iraq.

The attack happened just hours after he had talked to his family back home in Burley, Idaho, a farming town on the banks of the Snake River. He had called his mother to wish her a happy birthday.

“He didn’t tell us what he was up to. He said, ‘Just doing my job,’” his sister Brenda Thibeault recalled. “We found out later he had been on all these missions.”

“He was honored to serve his country. It provided him with adventure,” Thibeault said.

But Hall was a quiet hero, and not one to brag.

Yet he had plenty of reason to, early on in life.

As a 14-year-old, he saved his father from drowning. While whitewater rafting, the elder Hall hit his head on a boulder and went in.

“I was floating face down. Curtis saw me,” his father Ron Hall recalled. Curtis and his brother, Randy, jumped into the river.

“Curt was there first. He saved my life there,” Hall said.

The brothers were awarded the Boy Scout’s Honor Medal, for unusual heroism and skill in saving a life at considerable risk to themselves. Their story was featured in Boys’ Life, the official magazine of the Boy Scouts.

Years later, the brothers would join the Navy, both serving in combat in Iraq.

“It’s a shame to lose a son who is so good,” his father said.

Hall was a dedicated sailor, but when he was on leave it was family time.

“If he would come home on leave he would make a point to see each of us,” Thibeault said.

That could be a challenge, because the large family lived within an eight-hour radius of each other. Even so, Hall found time to spend with everybody.

He always brought gifts for his nieces and nephews. Hall was the “cool” uncle who played wild and twirled the kids around until they squealed.

“They loved it,” Thibeault said.

One of his brothers, Michael, passed away a few years ago after an illness. When Hall was home, he wouldn’t let Addison, Michael’s son, go to daycare.

“Wherever Curtis went, Addison went,” she said. “There aren’t very many 22-year-old guys who’d do that.”

As the youngest brother of five children, Hall took pride in sharing his talents with his family. He liked cooking and took it upon himself to prepare the family’s Christmas turkey last year.

“He was adamant about the right spices and cooking it just right,” Thibeault said. “Like a little kid with a new toy.”

But he also had an artistic side, and could play multiple instruments.

Thibeault said Hall had been in Oak Harbor for less than a year, but loved the area and the people.

“When he was in Florida he learned to surf, when he was in San Diego he took his Jeep out to the desert. He was so excited to explore the things he could do in Washington,” Thibeault said.

While the funerals have been held and the families have received countless letters and cards from all over the country, the vacuum left by the deaths of the sailors has become more real for their families.

“This week has been hard. When everything was going on with the funeral, we were so busy. This week we had time to think,” Pat Billiter said.

But, she said, she is grateful to all who have reached out to her family.

“We can never repay them,” she said.

Thibeault said it’s a long way to go for her family. Hall’s funeral was held April 16.

“We’ve seen him, we brought him home, but it’s still hard knowing he isn’t coming home,” she said.

“His things still have to come home,” Thibeault added. “I sent him a package on April 2.

They said they would send it back. And his things he had with him in Iraq will come home.

“Seeing him and having the service was helpful. But there still isn’t closure,” she added.

Michaela Marx Wheatley can be reached at 221-5300 or mmarx

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