Soldiers, Family Members and friends of the Fort Drum community attended a Mountain Remembrance ceremony Jan. 27 at the Main Post Chapel to honor three 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers recently killed in Afghanistan while supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Soldiers were Sgt. 1st Class Todd M. Harris, a mortar platoon sergeant with 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment; Sgt. Michael Paranzino, a cavalry scout from 1st Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment; and Spc. Blake D. Whipple, a combat engineer with 693rd Sapper Company, 7th Engineer Battalion.
“The Soldiers we are honoring today were volunteers in a volunteer Army,” said Brig. Gen. Harry E. Miller Jr., senior commander Fort Drum. “No one demanded their service; rather, they gave years of their lives in commitment to defending their country, and ultimately they gave their lives.”
Miller said the Soldiers being honored shared special bonds of loyalty, dependency and passion for one another. He explained that losing a battle buddy in combat means “to suddenly find oneself without the support and trust of another, in the most dangerous of situations.”
But the bonds of one’s immediate Family, he noted, are without comparison.
“A Soldier’s immediate Family is his refuge, his purpose and his unfailing support,” Miller said. “Families, I want you to know that you are not alone. To the Families here today, you are always welcome in the 10th Mountain Division, and I invite you to always be a part of our Army Family.
“Your sacrifices are tremendous,” he added. “Whereas your Soldier volunteered his service to this country, you did not. Yet, you faithfully supported and ultimately sacrificed more than the overwhelming majority of other citizens – citizens who will reap the benefits of your sacrifice for years to come, but will never understand what that sacrifice feels like.”
During the ceremony, commanders from each Soldier’s unit also paid tribute to their fallen comrades.
In honoring the memory of Harris, Capt. Michael E. Falls, rear detachment commander of 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, called the fallen warrior a “fearless, selfless motivator” who was a “brother-in-arms and an infantryman through and through.”
“Like many of our leaders have done in recent months, when faced with a dangerous decision, (Harris) led his men forward to help his fellow Soldiers,” Falls said. “He understood that leaders take action – especially in combat.
“Because of his service and commitment, he gave that last full measure of devotion for that priceless ideal that we call freedom,” he added. “He gave his life leading his men to help other Soldiers under attack by the enemy.”
Falls quoted Psalm 27 to close his remarks, suggesting Harris’ actions under fire in Afghanistan were a form of good works.
Next, Maj. Douglas Baker, rear detachment commander for 1st Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, said although he regrets not knowing Paranzino more than he did, he distinctly remembers the fallen scout’s personality.
“The reason he stands out in my memory is because of that great smile,” Baker said. “Every time I saw him, he had a smile on his face. Through the strain of constant missions and sweltering heat, peeking out from under the grime and road dust was this smile that said: ‘It’s not that bad; we got this.’”
The commander called Paranzino a wisecracking morale-booster who knew how to bring the entire platoon to tears from laughing so hard. But he also mentioned Paranzino’s love for the Afghan people, and that the young man held strong beliefs about the Army’s continuing mission in those “muddy villages halfway around the world.”
“It’s easy for a Soldier in his unit to comment on the tremendous impact Michael had on the population,” Baker said. “But the true magnitude of his accomplishments was evident by the Afghan interpreters who would call him a brother and mean it, or by the Afghan police officers, who referred to him as a courageous warrior because they knew he would fight shoulder to shoulder with them as an equal.”
Lastly, a captain who formerly commanded 693rd Sapper Company, 7th Engineer Battalion, reflected on the consistency of Whipple’s loyalty – whether for a winning cause or for his continually trampled Buffalo Bills team.
“He always took the time to remind me that he was a diehard Bills fan, and that my team would lose to them during their next game,” Capt. Charles Comfort said. “I would play along and remind him of the Bills’ current record. That did not faze him, because he was a loyal fan, and it was the same loyalty that he showed to every one of his (Soldier) brothers.”
Concluding his remarks, Comfort said he only had his faith to fall back on while recognizing that no words would ever fill the hole in the hearts of those who knew Whipple.
“For whatever reason, Blake was chosen over many others to join God’s ranks. The only thing I do know is that God received one of the finest, young, dedicated men I have ever served with,” the captain said.
The ceremony concluded with the playing of taps, a moment of silence and the benediction.