Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Gregory J. Billiter dies of injuries from I.E.D.

Chief Petty Officer Gregory J. Billiter loved to talk about his work defusing explosives for the armed forces.

"When he talked about it, his eyes would light up," his aunt, Paula Snow of Covington, said. "He loved the science of it."

On Friday, the Villa Hills native was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb like those that fell to him to defuse.

Two soldiers came to the home of his parents, Barry and Pat Billiter in Villa Hills, and told them an improvised explosive device had killed their son.

They said he was in an armored vehicle when it happened, and that the blast injured three others, his aunt said.

"It's not clear to us whether they ran over it or whether they tried to defuse it," Snow said. "We may never know."

Billiter, 36, grew up in that same home in Villa Hills, where he attended St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Crescent Springs, Ky.

He attended Covington Latin School, where Headmaster Andy Barczak remembered him as a great kid who got along well with everyone.

"He was a really friendly kid," Barczak said. "I remember him always having a smile."

In his senior year, Billiter ran track, played basketball and served as the goalie for the school soccer team. He was a very competitive person who always strived to be the best, his brother, Jeff Billiter of Independence, said.

While at Covington Latin, he was also a member of the Pontifical Servers, the altar boys who served whenever the bishop of Covington celebrated Mass.

After he graduated in 1987, he earned a marketing degree at the University of Dayton, graduating from the university in 1991 when he was just 19, his brother said.

He found it difficult to get a job in his field at that age, and so in 1992 he entered the Navy, which he made his career. He could have retired in just five years.

First posted to San Diego, he became a Navy SEAL, but that only lasted about a week, his brother said, because he blew out a knee.

While stationed in San Diego, he met his future wife, April, a marine biologist. They were married at St. Joseph's in November 1996.

"When he brought her home for the first time, we couldn't believe it," his aunt said. "She looked just like the rest of us. She could have been all of our sisters."

After his posting in San Diego, he was stationed in Canton, Ohio, for a few years, where he did recruiting.

Then he spent about a year at Elgin Air Force Base in Destin, Fla., learning how to dispose of explosives.

He became an explosives expert, and was given Secret Service clearance. When the president or vice president visited a mall stateside, for example, his team would sweep it for explosives before the visit, his aunt said.

His last stateside post was with Explosive Ordinance Disposal Co. 157, at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington state.

He, his wife and their 3-year-old son, Cooper, lived nearby in the town of Oak Harbor, where she taught school.

On his first deployment to Iraq in March 2003 with the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier group, he scuba-dived to the bottom of the Persian Gulf to check for mines, his aunt said.

Later in that tour, he spent time disposing of confiscated ordinance.

His second tour of duty in Iraq was supposed to be his last overseas duty, his aunt said.

He felt strongly about the rightness of the American presence in Iraq, his brother said.

"He felt what he was doing was a very good thing," he said. "A lot of times, he felt the media didn't portray the positive aspects of what's going on over there.

"He wished they would show how much good the military was doing over there," his brother said.

"I'm so, so sorry that he died, but he was doing something that he enjoyed so much," his aunt said. "He was a very honorable man, always a good kid. Never any trouble."

Billiter was the latest of more than two dozen members of the Armed Forces with local ties to be killed in the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He will be buried in Kentucky, his aunt said, but as of Monday evening, it wasn't clear where.

"As you can imagine, nobody has a grave for a 36-year-old man," she said.

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