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Originally published August 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 10, 2007 at 2:30 PM

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Ft. Lewis brigade loses 10 soldiers in a week

The soldiers were at the tail end of a tour that was supposed to end in June at 12 months but was extended.

Seattle Times staff reporter

After four combat tours — the last a 15-month marathon with a Fort Lewis Stryker Brigade — Sgt. Nick Gummersall was scheduled to finally return to his Pocatello, Idaho, home by early October.

His family was primed to celebrate. Gummersall, 23, a high-school football star, was eager to take in a Denver Broncos game.

"I was just going to buy the tickets this week," said his brother Casey, 24.

On Monday, Sgt. Gummersall was killed in a bomb explosion that also claimed the lives of three other 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division soldiers. They were at the tail end of a tour that was supposed to end in June at 12 months but was extended.

The brigade has some 4,000 soldiers at full strength, and has lost 47 since departing last June. The week that ended Monday was a particularly deadly stretch, with three soldiers killed July 31, another three Aug. 2.

Then on Monday, the brigade lost Gummersall, Cpl. Juan Alcantara, 22, of New York; Spc. Kareem Khan, 20, of Manahawkin, N.J.; and Staff Sgt. Jacob Thompson, 26, of North Mankato, Minn. The four were killed when a bomb went off in a house they were searching in Baqouba, a city in Diyala province.

The 15-month tours of combat of duty became standard across the Army earlier this year as part of President Bush's effort to intensify the U.S. military campaign. Such long tours have placed additional hardships on soldiers and families.

Pentagon officials have said that the 15-month tours were necessary for the all-volunteer Army — under strain in the fifth year of war — to muster enough soldiers for the troop escalation.

Gummersall was a fleet-of-foot running back for a championship team at his Pocatello high school, according to family members. He qualified to join the elite Rangers, and made two trips to Iraq and one to Afghanistan in tours of up to four months.

After his return in the spring of 2006, Gummersall was charged with driving under the influence as he returned one night to Fort Lewis, said his father, Clay Gummersall. His father said the drunken-driving charge "knocked him out of the Rangers."

The Army then dropped the charges, his father said, and Gummersall agreed to transfer to the Stryker Brigade just as it was deploying to Iraq.

Clay Gummersall said his son didn't want to go back but was a good soldier who didn't complain and did what he was told. "I was very frustrated by his return to Iraq," Clay Gummersall said.

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The deaths of Gummersall and his three comrades come at a time when Army officials say that they have made significant progress in Iraq, including Diyala province, where the Fort Lewis brigade spearheaded a campaign that joined with Sunni tribal leaders to flush out insurgents from Baqouba and increase stability.

Nick Gummersall believed the troop increase was helping. "He said that we are making a difference, that the children are actually able to go to school, and the police are a bit better," Casey Gummersall recalls. "He told my mom, 'I got to do this, I will be fine.' "

For Nick Gummersall, there was also unexpected romance. He fell in love with an Army helicopter pilot, and they had planned to marry upon his return.

But the family was disturbed by the extension, which included arduous 48-hour missions with water but scant food, according to Nick Gummersall's messages to his brother.

They thought he should come home and shared their frustrations with him.

"I thought that a year was enough; Bush didn't need to push them harder," Clay Gummersall said.

Feroze Khan, the father of 20-year-old Spc. Khan, also was concerned about the extension, but he said he never shared his concerns with his son.

Spc. Khan was on his first tour of duty in Iraq, and his father described him as committed to Army service.

"My son believed in what he was doing, and that was good enough for me. And he knew what he was getting into when he signed up because the war was already going on," Khan said.

Khan said that during the Baqouba campaign, he only heard from his son every few weeks — compared to every few days earlier in the tour. His son was eager to try snowboarding, a sport that intrigued him, when he returned and moved from his home state of New Jersey to Fort Lewis.

Charlie Thompson, father of Jacob Thompson, said both he and his son felt the extension was necessary to "get the job done." Thompson said his son was on his second tour of duty, and ready to re-enlist and return for a third tour, if necessary.

Alcantara's family could not be reached for comment Thursday.

For Gummersall's family, the recent days have brought an outpouring of condolences.

Gummersall will be buried Aug. 17 in Pocatello. A service to be held at the football field at Century High, his alma mater, is expected to draw thousands of people.

"I guess it is going to be huge," Clay Gummersall said. "The community support is unbelievable."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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