Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Joel A. Dahl dies 'of wounds sustained when his unit was attacked by enemy forces using small arms fire'

Joel Dahl was ready to become a father, says his wife Alia.

"I've been so anxious for this date, and so has he," she says, sifting through marriage photos as she talks, eyes cast down. "He'd been calling me every night, saying, 'How's my little sport? How's the baby? Is my son here yet?' He'd call every night asking about the baby." Joel Dahl, a corporal in the 4th Stryker Brigade of the 2nd infantry Division, was due to return to New Mexico from his first tour of Iraq July 2 to see his newborn son.

But the 21-year old Los Lunas resident and Los Lunas High School graduate was killed Saturday, June 23, when his unit came under small-arms fire while on patrol in south Baghdad — one of seven U. S. soldiers to die that Saturday.

After a deep breath, Alia Dahl, 19, says the last time she talked to Joel was Friday night - the night before he died.

"He asked me to get him an X-Box so he could stay up all night playing it," she says chuckling. "I said 'Well if I buy that, then you won't have any time for me.' He said, 'No ... I'll stay up all night playing X-Box, then I'll hang out with you and the baby all day.'"

They joked about him taking the 2 a.m. feeding and changing late night diapers for Kaiden, his unborn son.

"He was talking about how he was going to teach his son how to play (the X-Box)," she says.

He also gave Alia a list of X-Box video games to buy - mostly war games.

"I asked him, 'Aren't you tired of the war?' and he said, 'Well yeah, I'm tired of it over here, but it's different when you're playing it on a game. It's fun,'" she says.

Joel enjoyed having fun, say his friends.

"He was always really funny — he loved horsing around," says Britney Gonzalez, who met Joel when he worked at her mother's day care center in Los Lunas. "He was funny all the time, non-stop."

Fun, like the time Joel discovered that a friend of theirs from Los Lunas was in training with him in Iraq.

"He came up behind him and scared him," she says. "Of all places, to be in training and then come up behind him and scare him."

Michelle Rael, who met Joel in the First United Methodist Church of Belen's youth group along with Alia when they were both still in high school, says she'll remember Joel for the way he made her laugh.

"He just made you feel special when he was talking to you — like you're the only person who mattered at that moment," she says. "He charmed a lot of the girls at youth group, I must admit."

One who was not initially charmed, ironically, was Alia.

"I didn't like him," she says. "He was conceited, stuck on himself. But he's got the type of personality that grows on you. I eventually had to admit. 'Well, I do have a lot of fun with him. I have to give him that.' You know?"

Alia says it as the little things Joel did that won her over.

"I'd get mad and he'd do simple little things to make it up," she says. "While he was living in Washington and I was here, I was sitting at work and all of the sudden this guy comes in with a bouquet of roses. It was just those simple little things he'd do."

"It was his calling"

Dahl always wanted to be a soldier.

Friends and his adopted parents all say he'd been on the path to the military since he was young.

"He wanted to be a soldier and wanted to serve his country," says Hiltrud "Oma" Ridenour, who along with husband Larry became surrogate grandparents to Joel in his final years of high school.

Joel became best friends with the Ridenours' grandson, Robbie, whom they raised from a young age, when both were in the fifth grade and Joel lived in their Cypress Gardens neighborhood.

"Robbie and Joel were inseparable," she says. "They had sort of the same background family-wise so they understood each other and shared a lot."

Joel was a wrestler while in school in Belen and eventually played some football at Los Lunas High School, but he found his niche when he joined JROTC, where he became a member of the troupe's elite drill team.

Major Mike Lloyd, senior instructor for the JROTC program at Los Lunas High School, said Joel was in his class for three years and they'd kept in contact since Joel's graduation.

"On the outside, Joel was a very fun-loving individual," Lloyd says. "He always had a light-hearted remark for everyone and saw the humor in everything. But on the inside, he was a deep thinker."

Lloyd said Joel thrived on the hands-on, action part of the ROTC program at LLHS and loved going out and doing things outside the classroom.

"Hands down, this is what the guy lived for," he says. "It was his calling to do this."

Ridenour said Joel, Robbie and her other adopted son, Timmy Tellez, would spend hours in the dusty open spaces near Cypress Garden "playing soldier," when they were younger.

The only other things that approached his interest in the military were cars ("He loved cars, old clunkers. They always worked on old cars," she says.) and video games.

But being a soldier was a constant.

"Even when he was in ROTC, he was very proud of his uniform," she says. "They both just wanted to be soldiers. (Joel) wanted to make a career of it. He was close to being sergeant."

"Joel was my special young man," Ridenour says. "He overcame a lot of obstacles in his life."

Coming from a broken home was one of the main obstacles. Joel took care of his sisters - Crystal, 19, Angel, 13, and Patty 5 - and brother, Nick 14, from an early age.

Eventually Joel and Nick came to live with Patty Harris-Thompson and Jerry Thompson of Los Lunas.

"Joel was the patriarch of those kids," says Patty Harris. "... He missed a lot of school to take care of them. They really looked up to him."

Natalie Brown, owner of Little Blessings Day Care, where Joel worked before joining the Army, says Joel was "great with the kids."

"He was especially great with the boys," she says. "He'd take them to the pool, play around with them. He was just a fun, easy-going guy."

Harris said Nick was particularly close to Joel and has taken his death hard.

"He's very emotional now," she says. "I keep telling the kids he did what he wanted to do. He chose to go there and he always wanted to be military so he died doing what he wanted to do."

Harris says Joel bestowed a special honor on her husband Jerry Thompson, who inducted him into the Army.

"He (Jerry) is a major in the Air Force Reserves," she says. "He had to get special permission to do it. They were both in uniform. It was all Joel's idea. He always created special moments like that."

"The biggest things he wanted was to graduate high school, he wanted to be in the military and wanted a wife and family," she says. "And he did it. He just wanted to have a normal life."

Alia Dahl says Joel Dahl really wanted to meet his son. Alia says she briefly considered changing Kaiden's name to Joel's - derived from the traditional Caden with an "i" added by Joel and the "K" by Alia because she wanted a "K name." But she didn't.

"He couldn't wait to meet his son but he never got his chance," she says. "But I want the baby to know even though he died, he loved his son already. He absolutely loved Kaiden. We had this future all planned out.

"At Christmas, he was talking about how he couldn't wait until it was time to put his bike together and watch his son go from training wheels to a regular bike."

She says he wanted Kaiden to play football and wrestle as he did. When she suggested their son he might want to run track and cross country — like Alia did at Belen High school — Joel scoffed, she said.

"He said, 'No, he's going to be just like me and do football and wrestling,'" she says.

Alia says she's worried about explaining Joel's death to Kaiden, but knows what she'll say.

"I was terrified of thinking about Kaiden coming home from kindergarten and saying 'All the other kids have dads and I don't,'" she says. "And I want to tell him 'Your dad's in heaven and he's in a better place.

"But he died serving his country and he loved you."

From the News Bulletin