Monday, June 18, 2007

Matthew Soper remembered

Derek Eisele and Matthew Soper were inseparable.

They had spent nearly every day together since they were classmates at Jackson Catholic Middle School. They joined the Michigan Army National Guard together, fought next to one another on their first tour in Iraq and headed out together with the 1461st Transportation Company for the second.

"We couldn't get away from each other," Eisele said. "He was my roommate, my gun partner and my battle buddy. You feel 100 times safer when it's your best friend protecting your back."

So when the pair parted ways earlier this year for different assignments, the separation caused some uneasiness. It was two months before they would see one another again, when Soper surprised Eisele by stopping at his base.

"Maybe it was God saying Matt's got to see you one more time," Eisele said.

Two weeks later, Soper, 25, was killed when an improvised bomb struck his vehicle.

His death devastated friends and relatives who say they're trying to mend the gaping hole in their lives. Soper's funeral is at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Lumen Christi High School gymnasium.

After learning of their son's death, Shirley and Warner Soper spent the next week "knocking down doors" to bring his best friends and military family home. They succeeded last week when four, including Eisele, returned to Michigan.

"It's what Matthew would have wanted, and it's what we wanted," Shirley Soper said. "They needed to be here."

The trip home was a relief for Soper's close friends, who were told they wouldn't be able to attend the funeral.

"I would have been a wreck if they didn't let me come home," said John Phelps, Soper's longtime friend who is a communications officer in the 1461st.

"This is what I needed to do, to come home and be with the people who knew and loved him like I did. I'm so grateful just to make it back so I could say goodbye to my brother."

Nearly 500 soldiers attended Soper's memorial service in Iraq, Phelps said.

"Everyone knew he was a hero," he said. "He was always busy looking out for everyone else."

During the first week of their tour in Iraq three years ago, Eisele and Soper's convoy was struck by a bomb while traveling from Kuwait. Eisele said having Soper at his side helped him get through the anxiety.

"Your heart drops, and it races," Eisele said. "We got that feeling that this is going to happen to us every day. It took awhile to get used to but just having a familiar face and seeing each other, you'd feel more like you were home."

Eisele was with Soper when he was moved up to the position as gunner. Soper loved it and would volunteer for the dangerous position as lead gunner, eagerly telling friends about the roadside bombs he was able to spot.

"He'd come back and say 'I found another one. No big deal,'" said Soper's girlfriend, Alicia Oleksiak, who served with him in the 1461st. "Everyone relied on Matt. They knew when he was up there, nothing was getting by."

Soper was in a great mood when he left with his convoy the day his vehicle was struck, Oleksiak said. He was set to return home in August and weeks earlier had spent hours discussing plans with Eisele for a raucous welcome-home party.

For Oleksiak, it still doesn't seem real.

"When they told me what happened it felt like my heart was getting ripped out of my chest," Oleksiak said. "I don't think I've ever cried so hard in my life."

Shirley Soper met her son's casket Wednesday at Jackson County Airport, greeting him as if he had just stepped off the plane with his company. Some family members didn't go, knowing it would be too heartbreaking for them to bear.

"As a mother it was something I had to do," she said. "I got to kiss him 100 times. I got to see his face and touch his hands."

Army officials tell soldiers to write letters to their families in case something should happen to them, but Soper brushed off the idea during his first tour, reassuring everyone he would return home, Warner Soper said.

Before returning to Michigan, Eisele headed to Soper's barracks to pick up some of his personal items. Stuck under his computer was an envelope addressed to his family in case he didn't make it home alive.

"I didn't know he could write like that. It was so beautiful," Warner Soper said in tears. In the three-page letter Soper thanked his family for everything they've done and let them know he would continue to watch out for them.

"It said if we wanted to talk to him, just to look up and I'll be the first star you see," Shirley Soper said. "I looked up at the stars for him last night."

From the Jackson Patriot

Related Link:
Matthew Soper dies 'of wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device'