SUSSEX, Wis. - A decade later, the pain of loss still stings. It was 10 years ago that the brutal reality of their wartime mission became clear for the 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery. That was when Cpl. Stephen Castner was killed by a roadside bomb near Tallil, Iraq on his very first convoy escort mission.
Sunday, new Soldiers in that unit who did not experience that harsh lesson joined others who did for a ceremony commemorating the 10-year anniversary of Castner’s death by naming their Sussex armory drill hall in Castner’s honor.
“It’s been a long 10 years - a lot of emotions,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Beilfuss, who was Castner’s company commander for the mobilization at Camp Shelby, Mississippi and subsequent deployment to Camp Navistar, Kuwait.
Now the commander of the very battalion he deployed with a decade ago, Beilfuss was one of the Soldiers to speak at a command remembrance ceremony for Castner, held Sunday (Aug. 14) at Battery A’s armory in Sussex, Wisconsin.
Underscoring the close bond the National Guard has with its community, Castner’s mother Kay taught Beilfuss geometry growing up in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. But Castner touched lives far beyond the northern Milwaukee suburb.
“We’ve become fairly close with large number of people that we never would have known,” Kay said after the remembrance ceremony.”
“That includes the other three Soldiers who were in the truck,” added his father Steve. “We know them all, we maintain contact with them - two of them have been to our home. In July we met the parents of one of those Soldiers. Everybody stays in touch, and I think it helps everybody.”
Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, said that the National Guard’s close association with their communities helped ensure public support for when those Citizen Soldiers were called to serve their nation in a combat theater.
“Our nation has been built on men, like Cpl. Castner, willing to volunteer - earn the right to wear the uniform and, when called, deploy into harm’s way,” Dunbar said.
Jeff Stockinger, a former member of Beilfuss’s company and a member of the same platoon as Castner, shared humorous memories of his fallen comrade from mobilization training at Camp Shelby.
“We always called him our geek, our buddy, our comrade,” Stockinger said. When he learned of Castner’s death, he borrowed a practice from his time as a volunteer firefighter to pay tribute to his friend.
“I pulled off our [brigade shoulder] patch, I took a black marker and made a band across the patch,” he said. “Command took to that and let us honor that for 60 days in country.
“That was a rough night - a very rough night,” Stockinger continued. “It was a quick reality check.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Rafael Conde, the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s senior enlisted advisor, was the command sergeant major for the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment, which would turn over the convoy escort mission to the 121st Battalion in July and August of 2006. After Castner’s death, Conde met with the senior noncommissioned officers of the 121st Battalion.
“We were coming to the end of our deployment, and we also suffered casualties at the beginning of our deployment,” Conde said, referring to Sgt. Andrew Wallace and Spc. Michael Wendling who were also killed by a roadside bomb nearly 10 months earlier in Shaibah, Iraq. “I wanted to impress on the senior NCOs that the one thing we always have to remember is we had a mission to do, and the mission comes first. We were the convoy escorts for the entire theater - nothing came in or out of Iraq unless we were escorting it.”
Conde recalled his battalion being excited to learn they would be replaced by another Wisconsin Army National Guard battalion.
“We knew exactly what kind of Soldiers Wisconsin has, and the professionalism,” he said.
Sgt. Maj. Jason Grundel was a noncommissioned officer in the same company but a different platoon as Castner in 2006, and remembered Castner as “a great Soldier.”
“This was really important for the whole organization,” Grundel said. “It’s great to have something in his name, in his family’s name, here for the long haul.”
During the ceremony, Beilfuss said the annual gravesite remembrances for Castner helped him learn more about his fallen Soldier.
“First, Stephen was a great son and friend that made an impact on those around him,” Beilfuss said. “Second, Stephen was a reader, with great interest in the world around him. Third, Stephen was proud of his service and wanted to serve overseas as a Soldier. Stephen was a volunteer and truly a Citizen Soldier.”
Kay and Steve shared less formal characterizations of their son.
“Crazy guy,” Kay said. “He was just a lot of fun, a student of history, a reader who read so much it interfered with eating and sleeping. Enjoyed life - had a good time.”
“He did what he wanted to do,” Steve added.
“His slogan was, ‘I do what I want,’” Kay continued.
Dunbar said renaming the drill hall at the Sussex armory would ensure that future generations of Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers would know Castner’s story, and perpetuate his memory.
“While we remember Cpl. Castner and the tragic event 10 years ago, we are reminded that he lives on with his battle buddies and those who served with him,” Dunbar said. “Dedicating this hall and this bronze plaque will ensure that future generations of Citizen-Soldiers remember his service and his sacrifice.”
Kay said she and her husband were grateful for the remembrance.
“We know a lot of Gold Star people,” she said. “When we talk to each other, there’s always this concern that the Soldier who has been lost will be forgotten. This is just one thing that helps assure me he is not forgotten - and that’s really important to me.”