Sunday, March 11, 2007

Ryan Russell remembered

STANHOPE — Before he wore the uniform of the Armys 1st Cavalry Division, Ryan D. Russell dressed to the nines one evening in a black suit and an orange dress shirt.

It was prom night 2003, his junior year at Southern Nash High School, and he hadn't had time to get fitted for a tux. It was kind of a last-minute deal; he didn’t have a date for the dance, and neither did his good friend and classmate Jennifer Joyner. But both wanted to go, so they decided to go together.

"The whole thing was kind of backwards," Joyner said Thursday, thinking of her friend and all the goofy things he did that she was going to miss. "I had to drive and pick him up, because he didn't have a car. He came out in that suit and that orange shirt, and my dress was blue. I was so embarrassed. But it all worked out, and it was funny, and we had the best time."

That was Ryan, Joyner said: always up, always looking for the laugh.

Spc. Russell, who was 20, died Monday in Baqubah, Iraq. He was a medic in the 1st Cavalry out of Fort Hood, Texas. The Associated Press reported that he was trying to help fellow soldiers injured by an improvised bomb when a second bomb exploded. Two other soldiers also died.

Russell, the youngest of three, grew up in wide-open rural Nash County 35 miles east of Raleigh. The just-plowed earth stretched out like a runway beneath the horizon. His was not a farming family, but the high school where he went was set down between acres of tobacco, corn and cotton. He was never class valedictorian, but Kelley Koepp, who was a year behind him, recalls that he did get elected Class Clown, a title he relished and worked hard to live up to.

"Everybody knew him," Koepp said, recalling afternoons socializing in the parking lot of nearby Jones's Store.

Russell was a little unpredictable, friends say. Every once in a while he would show up with his brown hair cut in a mohawk. Several times, he shaved it completely off, slick as Mr. Clean.

Typical teenager, says Andrea Smith, who taught Russell in chemistry class at Southern Nash.

"A very bright young man," she said, fighting tears. Smith is an assistant principal at the school now, and she prays for the safety of all her students, current and former. Many Southern alumni have enlisted in the military, she says. Russell is the first one she's aware of that they've ever lost, and it hurts.

Smith had known Russell since he was a little boy, when he and his brother, Robert, were members of the Royal Rangers at the Nashville Praise and Worship Center, the church her family also used to attend. The Royal Rangers, the church's version of the Boy Scouts, had their retreats at the Smith’s farm, and the Russell boys were friends with Smith’s two girls.

In April of his senior year, just short of graduation, Russell withdrew from Southern. Not long after, he was in boot camp at Fort Hood. But he came back to visit, stopping in on his old teachers, looking sharp in his Army uniform. He was a boy when he left Nash County.

"He's a man, now," Smith said. "If you sacrifice your life for someone else, you're a man."

From the Observer

Related Link:
Ryan D. Russell dies of injuries from I.E.D.