Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Gary Koehler remembered by friends, community

Whenever Jeff Keene heard news of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, he feared for his good friend, Marine Cpl. Gary Koehler. The two graduates of Milan High School had been close friends since the sixth grade.

"I've been worried about him," Keene said last week. "Every time I heard of Marines killed, I thought of him. I wondered if it was him. But it never was, you know, until this time."

Koehler, a TOW missile systems operator on his second tour of duty in Iraq, was killed by a roadside bomb Nov. 1 while conducting combat operations in Iraq's Al Anbar province. He was 21, and just weeks away from coming home for the remainder of his service.

The tragic news spread quickly through town Nov. 1 and into the next morning.

In the corner of the front window of the downtown Milan Bakery, owner Charlotte Thompson placed a framed high school graduation photo of Koehler as part of a tribute she was designing in honor of Veterans Day. She has been planning the display since last summer, and intends to list the names of all the Michigan soldiers killed in Iraq since the war began 3 1/2 years ago.

"It's just unfortunate I have to add one of our hometown people," Thompson said.

Yellow ribbons honoring Koehler adorn every lamppost on the grounds of Milan High School.

"Gary was one of those people everybody knew," said 2003 Milan High School Class President Nina Galanti, who organized the placement of ribbons throughout town. She is working with the class of 2007 to raise funds for a permanent memorial.

"We're not sure yet what we're going to do, but we definitely want to do something to honor Gary," she said.

As word of the 2003 graduate's death spread through Milan High School Thursday, administrators and teachers felt struck in the chest.

"For the staff, it's tough," said Assistant Principal Leanna Soltis. "It's a hard day. I've been telling students, 'Don't ever think just because you graduate that there aren't people here who care about you.'"

Soltis remembered Koehler, the son of Ron and Mary Koehler, as an all-American kid who always had a smile.

Friends remember him as dedicated and loyal, as funny and fearless, energetic and accepting, confident and compassionate, intuitive and inquisitive, as a man who never did anything halfway and always found a way to make things fun. He was the kind of guy who would walk four miles through the woods to get to the top of a waterfall just to jump off it.

"You could go on describing Gary all day," Keene said. "He was the nicest most sincere person I've ever met in my life. It's tragic because it seems this kind of thing always happens to the good guys."

Koehler was a two-sport athlete at Milan, a starting leftfielder for the baseball team and a tenacious defensive end in varsity football. In 2002, he made first team All-Huron League and first team All-Region.

At 6'1" and 190 pounds, he wasn't the biggest lineman on the field, coach Steve Robb said, but no one could match his intensity.

"He was outsized in some games, but he was never outmanned," Robb said. "He loved the physicality of the game. Talk about intense between the lines. Gary was all business on the football field."

Robb said the coaching staff was "pretty tore up about Gary. He was a heck of a kid."

Koehler's teammates remember him as a driving force on the team, a leader who always gave 110 percent, who loved to workout in the weight room and encouraged his teammates to do likewise.

"Gary was a leader when it came to motivating everybody," said Eric Himich, who quarterbacked the 2002 team and now plays football at Adrian College. "He was one of the guys people looked up to."

"He was a passionate player," said Ashe Haushalter, who played football with Koehler since the seventh grade. "He put his heart and soul into it."

Haushalter said he learned of Koehler's death last Wednesday morning when a friend called.

"I think a lot of people are still in disbelief about it," he said. "It's so surreal."

"It's kind of a shock," said Himich. "You're numb."

Himich said he will never forget Koehler fervently exhorting exhausted teammates to keep pushing assistant coach Joe O'Donnell's truck during practices.

"He did not give up and he would not let you give up," Himich said.

True to that characterization of refusing to yield, Koehler chose to return to active duty instead of coming home after he was wounded in the leg two years ago during fighting in Fallujah.

"It shows you the kind of guy he was," Keene said. "He told me he chose to stay because he couldn't leave the guys over there. He said he wouldn't feel right if he left them behind."

"Once he committed to something, he was going to live up to his commitment," Himich said.

High school history teacher Tom Gephardt said he remembers Koehler coming to visit him after that first tour and showing him the bullet wound.

"He told me he was going back because those guys were his friends, they were his family," said Gephardt, who had kept in touch with Koehler through e-mail and visits when he was back home.

Koehler joined the Marines after graduating from high school with plans to attend college on the GI Bill after he got out. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"I remember it as clear as yesterday the day I learned he was going to join the Marines," said Gephardt, whose father was a Marine in World War II. "I told him I had no doubt he would make as great a Marine as there had ever been."

Koehler served his first tour in Iraq from June 2004 to February 2005. He was deployed again in July.

Keene said Koehler was always quick to reassure friends and family that he was OK in Iraq.

"He would tell me don't worry about me. I'll be fine. I'll be back, and we'll have a blast when I get back," Keene said.

Koehler received a Combat Action ribbon, a Purple Heart, a Sea Service Deployment ribbon, a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Service Medal and a National Defense Medal.

Koehler married his high school girlfriend, Hillary Moss, in a small ceremony nine months ago, in February. They planned to hold a larger more formal ceremony this February after he returned from Iraq.

His friends say the couple talked about possibly moving to Colorado when Koehler's service ended next October. He loved the mountains and snowboarding, his friends said.

Koehler's death brought the war in Iraq home, according to Gephardt.

"This made the war real," he said. "It's important to remember that there are people out there like Gary who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and that this is what our country was founded on. He was the true definition of a hero."

Gephardt recalled the last time he saw Koehler, after his former student's first tour of duty when Koehler knew he was shipping out again soon.

"When we got up to part ways," said Gephardt, "I gave him a big hug and said I wanted to see him again and he said, 'You will, Mr. Gephardt. You will.'"

Keene said he most wanted people to know that his friend had a "humongous heart."

"Most guys only give you a handshake," Keene said, "but Gary would hug me and say he loved me. That's the kind of guy he was."

At the end of a heartbreaking, season-ending loss to Chelsea in 2002, the despondent Milan Big Reds gathered in the end zone. Assistant coach Mike Gauntlett remembers Koehler standing up to speak to the team, his face covered in mud and sweat.

"No matter what, I love you guys," Koehler said.

Donations for the creation of a permanent memorial honoring Koehler may be sent to Milan High School Principal Ron Reed.

Funeral arrangements are pending at First United Methodist Church in Ypsilanti.

From the News Leader

Related Link:
Gary Koehler remembered

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Gary A. Koehler killed in combat