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W. Va. honors guardsman, casualty of Afghan fighting

Monday, May 27, 2002

By Steve Twedt, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- On a weekend when all of America honors its war dead, the people of West Virginia gathered to pay tribute to the latest fallen hero, Staff Sgt. Gene Arden Vance Jr., 38, of Morgantown.

Staff Sgt. Gene Arden Vance Jr.'s widow, Lisa, left, and mother, June, at yesterday's memorial service. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

In a somber, dignified memorial service on the West Virginia University campus, Vance's widow, Lisa, his daughter from a previous marriage, Amber, 18, and other relatives and friends sat in the front rows as dignitaries, including U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller and West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, gratefully acknowledged the Vance family's sacrifice.

"He is truly our hero," Rockefeller proclaimed. "God bless you, Sgt. Vance."

About 750 people, including dozens of military personnel, attended the 75-minute service then proceeded outside to Oglebay Plaza where the bell from the USS West Virginia, dedicated to West Virginians who died in the service of their country, was rung 21 times in Vance's honor.

For his valor, Vance yesterday was posthumously promoted to staff sergeant and awarded the Legion of Merit, a second Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the West Virginia Distinguished Service Medal. Adjutant General Allen Tackett, Wise and Rockefeller each formally presented Lisa with the medals.

But they could not provide what she wanted most -- the husband to pin them on.

The two had been married just a few months -- and had to postpone their planned honeymoon trip to California -- when he was called to active duty in December. Yesterday, the visibly shaken widow had to be supported at each arm by Sgt. Major Patrick St. Clair and Lt. Col. Mick Galusky of the West Virginia National Guard as she entered and left the service.

Vance's daughter, Amber, receives a West Virginia flag from Gov. Bob Wise at yesterday's service. At left is his brother, David Vance. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

Vance, a member of the 2nd Battalion of the 19th Special Forces Unit of Kenova, W. Va., died a week earlier in Afghanistan when al Qaida or Taliban fighters, or both, opened fire while he was riding in a vehicle near Khost in eastern Afghanistan. His colleagues returned fire, reportedly killing Vance's assailant.

He is the first West Virginia National Guardsman to die on active duty since World War II and the 22nd service member killed in action since fighting began last fall.

Vance was described as "a private, modest man," an avid biker and outdoorsman, and a music lover. He represented "a potent combination of the ordinary and extraordinary," said WVU President David Hardesty Jr., who bestowed upon Vance an honorary diploma.

Vance had taken classes at various colleges over the years, including WVU from 1991-95, so he was considered a senior when he re-enrolled at WVU last fall. He withdrew following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and was called up three months later. At the time of his death, Vance reportedly was serving in a reconnaissance operation along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Vance was born in Frankfurt, Germany. He'd served in the National Guard for 10 years, developing special skills in deciphering communications in foreign languages such as Farsi.

As for yesterday's ceremony, "he probably would have recognized it's an important thing for the public, but he probably wouldn't like it," said Sgt. First Class Richard Vanhoose, who served in the same battalion.

A private funeral service for Vance will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow with full military rites. Burial will be at East Oak Grove Cemetery in Morgantown. Donations to the Sgt. Gene A. Vance, Jr. Memorial Fund at Wesbanco-Sabraton branch, 1350 Earl Core Road, Morgantown, WV, 26505.

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