Monday, October 08, 2007

Zach Tomczak laid to rest

Two of the soldiers who served with Army Staff Sgt. Zachary Tomczak in Iraq said their Huron comrade took care of the men under his command first before thinking about himself.

That was the comment made by Sgt. Eric Smallwood of Justin, Texas, who served nearly five years with Tomczak, and Spc. Jeremy Bohanna of Sacramento, Calif., who knew him two years.

The two talked about their fallen comrade at the funeral reception at Holy Trinity Catholic Parish on Wednesday. They also attended the funeral earlier in the day at Huron Arena.

“He was the kindest person you could ever meet,” Smallwood said. “He took good care of everyone around him and was loved by everyone.”

Bohanna said Tomczak was “a great guy. We got along just great,” he said.

Neither soldier was with Tomczak when he was killed.

Tomczak graduated from Huron High School in 2002. He played football and was a member of the wrestling team. He also participated in the Holy Trinity Catholic Parish Life Teen team along with his sister, Megan.

As for his days at Huron High School, principal Terry Nebelsick said: “Sitting in the arena today, it occurred to me all the wonderful things about life that were represented in the life of Zach Tomczak.

“Zach was a young man who always thought of others before himself. When he was injured in football, it wasn’t about him, it was about the team.

“In our hallways, it wasn’t about Zach, it was about his friends.

“Finally, when it came to being a soldier,” he said, “it wasn’t about Zach, it was about his family, his country and his fallen soldiers. We are all fortunate to have known Zach Tomczak.”

Mark Wendelgass, Huron Public Schools activities director, said as a senior, Zach was our leader on the football team.

“In the intra-squad scrimmage, he tore his ACL and could not play his senior year,” he said. “Yet he led by example by attending practices and games to cheer his teammates on.”

Matt Busch, who taught Zach at the Huron Vocational School and with his construction business, said Zach was a good kid.

“He was a good student, an excellent employee and a good friend,” he said.

Busch said Zach “would do anything you asked of him.”

Tomczak was in his fourth tour of duty in Iraq. He enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school.

Sitting on the table in the church gymnasium was a quilt made in memory of Pfc. Sheldon Hawk Eagles, who was killed in Iraq in 2003. The quilt was made by members of the Cheyenne River Indian Tribe for the Tomczak family.

Zach is survived by his wife, Beth Ann, of Fayetteville, N.C.; his father, Blaise (Jackie) Tomczak of Huron; his mother, Mary (Mike) Flowers of Sioux Falls; four sisters, Megan McGillvrey of Fargo, N.D., Siera Tomczak of Huron, Andrea Flowers of Sioux Falls and Tatum Tomczak of Huron; a brother, Nathan Tomczak of Huron; his grandparents, Richard and Karen Hamman of Huron and Theodore Tomczak of Kettle River, Minn.; and a nephew, Tyjion Tomczak of Huron.

He was preceded in death by grandparents Celia Tomczak and Pete and Irene Jarvis.

From the Plainsman

A young soldier proud of his Huron upbringing and his connection to the South Dakota prairie was returned to that prairie Wednesday.

Staff Sgt. Zachary Tomczak, killed Sept. 25 by small-arms fire in a Baghdad suburb, was eulogized before 800 family members and friends - including South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds - in the Huron Arena.

Later, at St. Martin Catholic Cemetery, the 24-year-old soldier was buried to the reports of 21 guns firing in the distance, to the plaintive cry of a trumpet blowing Taps, and to red, white and blue balloons blown by a southern wind as they sailed north into the sky over leaves colored by autumn.

"He was happy to wear the uniform," the Rev. Joe Holzhauser told those gathered in the Arena. "He was proud of his wife, Beth Ann. And he was pleased to come from Huron and from the prairies of Dakota.

"He was not loud and boisterous but led by his actions."

That was a theme echoed by some of the 20 to 25 members of the 82nd Airborne Division who made the trip to Huron from their home base at Fort Bragg, N.C.

First Lt. Derrick Syed was one of Tomczak's platoon leaders before the Huron soldier deployed in June to Iraq. Tomczak was more than a subordinate, Syed said. He was a friend.

"You're not, technically, supposed to fraternize with the enlisted guys," Syed, 28 and a native of Jersey City, N.J., said before the funeral service. "But I had a good, personal relationship with my soldiers, including Zac. It was OK to hang out with him. We could go to a bar together."

Being in the 82nd Airborne, Syed said he knew Tomczak would be tough, disciplined and "sharp as an arrow." But he was a quietly efficient and respected leader as well.

"There are two ways to lead, either through fear or through respect," Syed said. "Zac wasn't in your face. He was so laidback, the soldiers under him would do whatever he asked for fear of disappointing him. That's how much they loved and respected him."

Tomczak's immediate supervisor, Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Applegate, should have been flying back to Iraq on Wednesday after finishing a vacation in the United States. Instead, he was attending his first funeral of a soldier under his immediate command.

"It was my worst fear come true, to be away from my guys when something like this happens," said Applegate, 33.

A 2002 graduate of Huron High School, Tomczak enlisted in the Army that June and became a combat infantryman. He had broken his leg while riding an all-terrain vehicle, but recovered from that to go through Ranger school.

This past June, he was heading back to Iraq on his fourth tour of duty as Syed was returning to Fort Bragg after being shot in the arm in Iraq in May and recovering in Germany.

"We just saw each other briefly," Syed said. "I remember saying, 'Take care of yourself. I'll see you in a few months when I get back over.' If I had only known."

Wednesday's service included a group of Huron High football players dressed in their jerseys, because Tomczak played football and wrestled while he was in high school. It also included members of his sister's dance team.

A hunter and fisherman who liked to shoot paintballs, make model cars, cook and watch his San Francisco 49ers play football, Tomczak also liked the speed of racing down the road on an ATV.

"He liked to go fast," Applegate said. "He was an extreme ATV rider."

In his four tours, he earned a chest full of medals, including the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Meritorious Service Medal.

As his funeral procession passed east along Ninth Street, then south along Dakota Avenue - led by an escort of motorcyclists called the Patriot Guard Riders - people stood in groups of two, three and four along the curbs, many with flags in their hands.

At the cemetery, members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe presented Beth Ann Tomczak with a star quilt to honor her husband. It was given in memory of Pfc. Sheldon Hawk Eagle, a fellow member of the 82nd Airborne who was killed in November 2003 in Iraq in a helicopter crash.

After the ceremony, Holzhauser noted that Tomczak did not die alone. An Army chaplain was with him after he was hit by sniper fire. He was there to pray over Tomczak as he was declared dead at the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad, Holzhauser said.

"I do know the chaplain called his wife and sent his condolences and said he was there at the end," he said. "That has to be comforting."

As state chaplain for the National Guard, Holzhauser said this was the ninth funeral he has attended among the 25 service members with ties to South Dakota who have died in the Iraq War. It doesn't get any easier, he said.

"It's painful to watch so many young people have to die in such a tragic way, because they are the future of South Dakota," Holzhauser said. "But all these young people participated because they believe in South Dakota, they believe in this country and, like Zac, they believe in his God."

All of that is true, Syed said. But it doesn't lessen the pain.

"I'm not afraid to say that I loved him like a brother," Syed said before the service in the Arena. "My heart hurts."

From the Argus Leader

Related Link:
Zachary B. Tomczak dies 'of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit using small arms fire'