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Published: Sunday, August 3, 2003

Silvana soldier killed in Iraq

Herald staff

A U.S. soldier from the tiny town of Silvana was killed and three others were wounded in a rocket-propelled grenade attack on their convoy east of Baghdad, Iraq, the military reported Saturday.

The soldier, Justin Hebert, is the first Snohomish County casualty in Iraq.

Close friend Chad Winterhalter, who has known Hebert since the fifth grade and played football with him, told The Herald that Hebert was always the kind of guy who made people laugh.

"There was nobody like him," Winterhalter, 20, said. "We had our childhood fights, but I could never stay mad at him and when I'd run into him everything was fine. And when he grew up and wanted to go into the Army, I encouraged him to go for his goals."

Winterhalter accepted the fact that he might never ever see his childhood friend again.

"The fact that he went into the military, there's a chance he wasn't coming back, and then it hits you: He's not coming back," Winterhalter said.

Winterhalter's uncle, Fire District 9 commissioner Mark Winterhalter, remembered Hebert as a hard-working young man who used to help him haul hay during summers after school.

"I was hoping he had already come home," Winterhalter told The Herald when reached by phone Saturday night. "It's an unfortunate thing to end up losing his life over there, and it seems we've lost a lot of lives since the war's been over.

"It's unfortunate, but with war you never know. You hope for the best," Mark Winterhalter said.

Hebert was a paratrooper with the "Sky Soldiers" of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy. He was believed to be with the brigade's soldiers who parachuted into northern Iraq in March to take control of the Harir airfield near Bashur.

The son of William and Robin Hebert, Justin Hebert was home on leave in January. He was still stationed in Italy but told his mother he would be leaving soon for Iraq.

"He said he was going to the bad land, and I figured it would be Iraq," she said in an interview with The Herald in March. "I knew he was going to be in it."

It was a quick conversation. "He said, 'I've gotta go, Mom.'"

And that was it. The regular phone calls stopped.

Robin Hebert remained anxious for any news that may have involved her son, an outgoing, free-spirited man who turned 20 in July.

"I've been waking up to CNN and going to bed with CNN," she had said.

The soldier, killed late Friday, was the 52nd to die in combat in Iraq since President Bush declared major fighting over on May 1. So far, 167 soldiers have died in the Iraq war, 20 more than during the 1991 Gulf War.

Robin Hebert said her son joined the Army to get an education and see the world. He joined as part of a buddy system with friend Brett Rickard. Both went into the Army just after they graduated from Arlington High School in June 2001.

The pair had known each other since middle school. Rickard joined the Army first, and about a week later Justin Hebert signed up.

Hebert never told his parents about taking the tests to qualify for the Army, coming home instead when he was ready to join and asking his parents to sign off on it because he was 17 and needed their signatures. His flight to basic training marked the first time he was ever in an airplane.

"We're worried, very worried and scared. But very proud of him," Robin Hebert said in the March interview.

Since Rickard and Hebert enlisted, yellow ribbons have hung from the trees on Silvana's main drag. And in the front window of Willow and Jim's Country Cafe is a poster with the photos of the two young soldiers.

Though Hebert and Rickard went through basic training together, their lives took a geographically different course.

Rickard, a paratrooper with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, is in Afghanistan fighting Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts in mountainous Hemand Province. Although he is deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, Rickard has been able to call his family regularly. And he's been sending home disposable cameras of his day-to-day life during America's "other war."

His parents watch the Afghan news on the Internet every night, hoping for news on the 82nd. And they also scoured for news that they could pass along to the Heberts.

"Both families keep track of both boys," David Rickard said in March.

Mark Winterhalter said he was sure the small Silvana community would hold a ceremony honoring Hebert's service to his country.

"I'm sure Silvana will do something. We're a pretty close-knit community," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Note: CENTCOM wrongly reported this soldier was from the 4th Infantry Division.(mlh)

Note: We learned (5 Aug) that Brian was sent to recover the body of this soldier.(mlh)

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