Thursday, June 21, 2007

Derek T. Roberts dies 'of wounds suffered when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle'

Judi Arel and Army Sgt. Derek Roberts often talked on the phone about plans for a wedding that was delayed by Iraq.

The couple wanted to get married on the beach in Hawai'i where Roberts was stationed, and where he wanted to make their home. A knock on the door Friday morning changed all that.

"We were planning a wedding, and now I'm planning a funeral. Kind of a hard switch," Arel said.

The 24-year-old California man was supposed to get out of the service in January 2007, but the deployment to Iraq kept him in.

They thought about September or October, after he had returned home, but his yearlong tour was extended to 15 months.

Finally, the couple decided that whenever he returned, they would invite family and friends in, and tie the knot, possibly on the North Shore.

Those plans are only a memory now.

Arel and Roberts' parents were told he had died along with two other Schofield Barracks soldiers June 14 in a roadside bomb blast that hit their Humvee in Kirkuk. Another soldier was seriously wounded.

Roberts' parents are devastated, Arel said. "Words can't even explain the shock and grief," Arel, 22, said.

The deaths that used to come singly in the more than four-year-old war are increasingly occurring in multiples — three, four and five — as more powerful bombs are employed that can take out a tank and simply demolish a Humvee.

The deaths Dec. 6 of five Schofield soldiers from a large roadside bomb that hit their Humvee in Hawija, southwest of Kirkuk, represented the single greatest combat loss for Hawai'i's 25th Infantry Division since the Vietnam War.

Twenty-eight Schofield soldiers have been killed since July on the 15-month deployment by more than 7,000 of the Hawai'i troops to northern Iraq. Five Schofield soldiers in total were killed last week.

By comparison, 13 died on a 2004 deployment of 5,200 soldiers to some of the same regions of Iraq.

The Pentagon yesterday also identified Spc. Val J. Borm, 21, of Sidney, Neb.; and Spc. Farid Elazzouzi, of Paterson, N.J., as having died in the Thursday attack. Borm's parents had previously confirmed he had been killed in the bomb blast.

The soldiers were with the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry at Schofield Barracks.

Arel said friends in the Army in Iraq told her "this was one of the biggest explosions we've seen."

"There was no way of predicting it, and it just wiped them out instantly," she said.


Arel, who moved in with Roberts' parents in Gold River, Calif., while she waited for his return, said her fiance had done his time in the Army and was looking forward to getting out.

He had joined out of high school with a buddy while looking for direction in life, and had previously deployed to Afghanistan.

The red-headed soldier with green eyes who loved "underground" music had just recently "come back to develop a relationship with God," Arel said.

Kristine Brewer, who along with her husband lived with Roberts and Arel at Iroquois Point before the deployment, said Roberts was "a very outgoing person and he was always full of life."

"It's very, very hard for me to handle," Brewer said. "It's a shock to everyone. He was a really good guy."

Roberts had a sensitive side, and treated his fiancee and fellow soldiers with respect, Arel said.

"He was so giving to other soldiers, like the new privates coming in; when all the sergeants were being mean to them, Derek would stand up for them, and say that it's not OK to treat them that way," she said.

Other soldiers in Kirkuk knew Roberts as someone who always had a smile, a witty comment, and a way to make every situation better, Arel said.

But the exterior also masked frustration at being "stop-lossed," or kept in the Army longer than his contract called for because of the Iraq deployment.

"Nobody's morale over there is high," Arel said. "They have their friends dying left and right, and half of them are stop-lossed and they all got (their time in Iraq) extended."


All the Schofield soldiers deployed believing they would be in Iraq a year, but the Army has extended tours for all soldiers in the country to 15 months.

One of the things that kept Roberts going was looking forward to marrying Arel back in Hawai'i.

"Being a widow at 22 is ... I just don't even have words in my vocabulary to explain it," she said.

But she also made Roberts a promise.

"No matter how long he was deployed, I would keep waiting for him, because I love him," Arel said. "No matter how long I have to keep waiting for him, I'll just keep waiting until I see him again in heaven."

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