Final tributes paid to Airmen killed in Iraq

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kevin Allen
Two memorial displays, each with a pair of boots, an inverted rifle, a helmet and a set of dog tags, stood side by side reflecting the camaraderie and teamwork and service of Tech. Sgt. Ryan A. Balmer and Staff Sgt. Matthew J. Kuglics, whose ultimate sacrifices were honored in a ceremony here June 8.

The Airmen were killed in action June 5 when their vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive. Both were supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom while assigned to Air Force Office of Special Investigations Expeditionary Detachment 2410.

More than 400 members of Kirkuk RAB, Forward Operating Base Warrior, and the Iraqi police attended the ceremony honoring Sergeants Balmer and Kuglics. Both Airmen were remembered for their contributions to the war on terrorism.

As comrades-in-arms and mourning patriots filed in to the Bastogne Gym for the service, a slide show slowly presented images of the sergeants. The sound of bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace" accompanied the photo presentation.

The standing-room only audience stood with heads bowed as the solemn ceremony opened with a prayer and the reading of Psalm 23.

A memorial meditation followed the psalm. During his reading, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Gerald McManus offered many words of faith, adding to them, "Ryan and Matt were good men, devoted to their families, exemplary Airmen, warriors and much more. But, they were also men of faith and they stood on the same soil as we do to defend the truth.

"It is in his sacrifice that you know the man," the chaplain quoted.

Col. Douglas Tucker, 506th Air Expeditionary Group commander, urged all in attendance to "remember not the tragedy, but remember the great lives, purpose and achievement," of the two men.

"These men understood that with great dreams come great risks," the colonel said. "But they also understood that with great achievement comes great reward.

"They faced those risks willingly in order to advance the cause of freedom, the great reward," he said.

Maj. Michael Howard, AFOSI EDET 2410 commander, first praised the efforts of the Iraqi men who helped secure the return of the patrol attacked that day, then spoke of the contributions of the warfighters our nation lost in that attack

He spoke of the talents of each man, calling Sergeant Balmer his "best operator."

"He had become a master practitioner of our profession," said the major. "He had the best qualities of a leader."

Regarding Sergeant Kuglics, Major Howard said, "He was a superior tactician. No one could design an operation to infiltrate the enemy and take down its network like he could."

"These two magnificent agents were the best of the Air Force's battlefield Airmen, and they lived honorable warrior lives," he said.

Special Agent Ryan, assigned to the AFOSI detachment at Balad Air Base, Iraq, and a close friend of Sergeant Kuglics, also spoke, remembering the last time he spoke to his friend in person.

"It was at the San Antonio airport," said the special agent, "and he said, 'See ya later, bro.' It was never goodbye between the two men."

He finished his thoughts with those same words to his friend and fellow warriors: "See ya later."

Each agent earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his heroism. After the reading of the citations, Major Howard placed folded American flags, presented by Kirkuk RAB Honor Guard members, on each memorial.

A seven-member Army rifle detail fired a three-volley salute to the fallen men; the shots echoed through the memorial area as Taps played.

A benediction closed the speaking portion of the service.

Attendees, led by Brig. Gen. Robin Rand, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing commander, had the opportunity to approach the memorials and pay their final respects. General Rand and Chief Master Sgt. Scott Dearduff, the 332nd AEW command chief master sergeant, placed mementos for Sergeants Balmer and Kuglics. The general gently held each set of dog tags for a moment, and then both men stood and saluted their Airmen for a final time. Dozens more followed suit, led by OSI agents and their counterparts from the Army.

Tears flowed, prayers were said and goodbyes were whispered as person after person paid their respects.

Members of the Iraqi police force brought forward large floral wreaths and rested them on the sides of the memorials in silent tribute.

Sergeant Balmer, 33, was a Mishawaka, Ind., native, deployed to Iraq from Hill Air Force Base, Utah. He served his country for 14 years as a security forces specialist, a C-5 loadmaster and an AFOSI agent. He is survived by his wife and their three children.

Sergeant Kuglics, 25, originally from North Canton, Ohio, deployed to Iraq from Lackland AFB, Texas. During his seven-year Air Force career, he served as a communications journeyman and AFOSI agent. This was his second deployment to Kirkuk in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is survived by his mother and father.