Thursday, April 26, 2007

Michael J. Rodriguez dies of 'wounds suffered when an improvised explosive device detonated near his location'

Pfc. Michael Joel Rodriguez never wanted anyone to worry about him.

"He always said he worried enough for both of us," said his fiancee, Caitlin Stone. "He'd always tell me not to worry."

The worries came true Monday when the 20-year-old soldier died in Iraq.

Rodriguez had been serving since August 2006 with the 82nd Airborne Division's 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team in Iraq's Diyala province. A suicide truck bombing killed him and eight other paratroopers in what Army officials called the unit's heaviest single loss since the Vietnam War and one of the deadliest attacks since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Rodriguez came from a military family and moved around the country as a boy, friends said. He lived in Holston Hills in East Knoxville as a teenager and attended Central High School in Fountain City, moving away his senior year.

"This was home for him," said Stone's mother, Laura. "He'd lived here longer than anywhere else."

Rodriguez and Caitlin Stone met as juniors at Central in U.S. history class. She remembers his laugh, his smile and his love for the outdoors and the military.

"He'd never not been military-oriented," Stone said. "There was really just never a question about it. He always knew what he wanted to do and was always committed to meeting that goal."

She believes that Rodriguez, whose father served in the Army and whose mother served in the Air Force, saw himself as part of a family tradition. Friends called him "Rot-see" for his devotion to the school's ROTC program.

"He was a great leader," Stone said. "He always got good grades in ROTC but nothing else. He couldn't spell my name right for the whole first year we were together."

The pair stayed in touch after Rodriguez left, first through letters and phone calls across state lines and then through e-mail messages and satellite phone calls from Iraq.

"It was impossible to not keep in touch," Stone said. "I think our longest conversation was about an hour and a half. He knows I'm very empathetic, so he didn't want to tell me about the more horrific stuff. I don't think he enjoyed being there. I just took it as something that was his job."

That job made for some uneasy phone conversations.

"He made a couple of good friends, but they were killed about a month ago," his fiancee said. "He didn't talk about it a whole lot. That was his way of dealing with things."

Through it all, Rodriguez talked about coming home to East Tennessee.

"He would call me sometimes and tell me he was having a daydream about taking a hike in the Smokies or fishing in the Holston River," Stone said.

She last saw Rodriguez in January, when he came home on leave. That's when he took her to Adair Park and asked her to marry him.

"My parents didn't know," Stone said. "He was going to ask my dad's permission when he got home."

They planned to marry after he finished his tour of duty and she finished her studies to become a nurse.

His last phone call came Friday night, three days before the suicide bombing.

"We talked for about an hour," Stone said. "It was just an ordinary phone conversation."

She learned about her fiance's death Tuesday morning after his mother called from North Carolina with the news.

Stone expects the 82nd Airborne to hold a memorial service later this week at Fort Bragg, N.C., for Rodriguez and the other fallen paratroopers. Funeral arrangements aren't complete, but Rodriguez told her he wanted his ashes to be scattered in East Tennessee.

Now she's trying to ready herself for his final journey home.

"You always try to sort of prepare yourself for it, but there's no being prepared for it," Stone said.

From the News Sentinel