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U.S. News
Pennsylvania soldier killed by friendly fire

Saturday, April 05, 2003

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Samuel Oaks first saw the uniformed men walking up the driveway of his suburban Erie home, his stomach turned over.

A postcard and photograph from Spc. Donald Samuel Oaks Jr. are displayed in the Harborcreek home of his grandfather, Samuel Oaks. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Related column: Fallen soldier's father has a question for God

Something, he realized, must have happened to his grandson, who was with the Army in Iraq.

"I knew it wasn't good news, but a lot of things go through your mind at a time like that. I thought maybe it wasn't so bad. Maybe he was just wounded," said Oaks, speaking in a quiet, flat voice by phone yesterday.

But his 20-year-old grandson, Spc. Donald Samuel Oaks, wasn't wounded.

He was among three soldiers killed in action in what the U.S. Central Command described yesterday as a possible friendly fire incident involving an F-15E fighter jet and U.S. ground forces.

Oaks, a specialist with the 3rd Infantry Division, Artillery, based at Fort Sill, Okla., was one of three soldiers from the battery killed in the incident Thursday. The others were Sgt. 1st Class Randy Rehn, 36, of Longmont, Colo., and Sgt. Todd J. Robbins, 33, of Hart, Mich.

Five other soldiers from the fort were injured in the fighting. Their injuries were not serious, said Brig. Gen. Richard P. Formica, commanding officer at the fort. Four of them were in the same artillery unit as the men who died. It was not clear if the injuries took place in the fatal incident.

Mary Oaks tries to comfort her grandson’s fiancee, Char Fedak, in Harborcreek, Erie County, yesterday afternoon. Oaks’ grandson, Donald Oaks Jr., 20, was killed by friendly fire in Iraq. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Formica declined to discuss details of how they were killed, but members of Robbins' family said they were told he was among eight soldiers in a Bradley fighting vehicle when it was apparently bombed by a coalition forces aircraft.

Military officials told Robbins' survivors they'll thoroughly investigate the incident, but family members questioned why so many U.S. soldiers are dying from so-called friendly fire incidents.

Yesterday, Donald Oaks Sr. appeared to be struggling with the way his son died.

In a voice barely above a whisper, he called his son's death "senseless."

"I think the U.S. should be certain of a target before they drop a bomb," he said. "It's just gut-wrenching to think that an American dropped it.

"The soldiers have beacons on them. And why someone would drop a bomb on them is beyond me. To be killed by your own ..." he said, his voice trailing off.

While friends and family gathered in the grandfather's house on Hereford Road in the suburb of Harborcreek, a dog barked in the background as the young soldier's father remembered his quiet, easygoing son, who was as skinny as a beanpole, with blue eyes and brown hair, and who, at age 20, "was still growing."

Samuel Oaks reaches up to accept a hug from his sister, Linda Blake, at his home in Harborcreek yesterday after the family learned tht his 20-year-old grandson was killed Thursday. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

The two were very close, said Oaks, who works as a forklift operator for Bush Industries, a furniture company.

His son loved baseball, Oaks said, so he coached his Little League team. They'd go fishing together for walleye in Lake Erie. Good at math and at computer games, the younger Oaks hoped to go on to college, so he joined the Army to finance his education. He also was engaged to be married, his father said, to Char Fedak, a woman he had known in high school.

Once it was known last year that he was being sent to Kuwait with the 3rd Infantry -- and later, possibly, to Iraq -- the young man took pains to reassure his family. Still, they felt uneasy.

"I hated the thought of him being over there," said his 19-year-old sister, Amber Lynn Oaks. She said her brother -- "my only brother" -- had told her during a Christmas visit that he wished he could complete his Army service. "He wanted to get it over with. He wanted to come home and spend more time with his family," she said.

"I don't think he liked it, but he had a job to do," added her father. "I didn't like it at all."

The last time Oaks heard his son's voice was in a phone call from Kuwait in January.

"He said, 'Dad, it's hell over here,' and he was not the type to complain," Oaks said. He tried not to worry about his son, but on Wednesday, the night before hearing of his death, he felt the urge to write him a letter.

Donald Oaks Sr. continues to struggle with the "senseless" way his son died. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

"I don't know if it was his spirit trying to contact mine, but I just felt his presence. I don't know if he was crying out to me or not, but I just wrote to him telling him to hang in there and stay strong.

"And I told him when he got back, we'd go fishing."

Word of Oaks' death spread quickly throughout the middle class community of 7,000 residents, a mix of rural land and new subdivisions just 10 miles from the New York border. At a news conference yesterday morning at Harborcreek High School, teachers reminisced about a pleasant, reliable young man who volunteered during his junior year to help in the school's administration office and "would do anything we asked him to," said Assistant Principal Andy Krahe.

"He was a quiet kid, but pretty inquisitive," recalled Eric Marshall, who taught social studies to Oaks in seventh grade and in high school. Marshall, a retired Navy captain, liked to "spice up my classes with stories about places where I'd been, and he liked hearing about them. Even in seventh grade, he was interested in the military as a career."

Marshall wrote to Oaks when he was in basic training. "I put my return address on the letter under 'Capt. Eric Marshall," and Donny later told me he got razzed for receiving a letter from an officer while in boot camp."

Last Christmas, Marshall and fellow school officials invited Oaks and other former students who had joined the military to come to a school assembly to talk about their lives.

Yesterday, Marshall found himself talking to students in his homeroom about Oaks again. But this time, he pointed to a chair where the young man had sat, just three years earlier.

"I think it really came home to them, that here is this empty chair, once occupied by a student who's now gone.

"I told them this was a direct hit on Harborcreek."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.

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