Over the past two years, 15 Tampa Bay area families have received the most dreaded of visits from a person in uniform. • Their husband or son or brother had been killed in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. • On Memorial Day two years ago, we honored the 54 Tampa Bay area residents who had died in combat since 2002. • Today, we honor the 15 who have died since then. • Let us pause today and remember how much we are in their debt. • We salute them and their families.
Army Spc. Jonathan C. O'Neill, 22, Zephyrhills. He died June 15, 2009, from injuries he received from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. He was a graduate of Zephyrhills High School and had been active in Junior ROTC. Before he died, President Barack Obama, who was visiting the hospital in Germany where he was being treated, presented him with the Purple Heart, his mother said.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason J. Fabrizi, 29, Seffner. He died July 14, 2009, after his mounted patrol in Afghanistan was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire. He had spent 30 months in Iraq over three tours, collecting top honors for his combat leadership, before he went to Afghanistan for his fourth tour. Family members said he loved his men and his family.
Army Spc. Justin D. Coleman, 21, Hernando Beach. He died July 24, 2009, in a firefight while searching for a missing soldier in Afghanistan, his family said. He was a Nature Coast Technical High School graduate and was married. He became certified as an ordained minister by taking online courses. An Army buddy called him "one of the best guys we had out there."
Air Force 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton, 24, Tampa. He died Sept. 8, 2009, when a roadside bomb exploded in Iraq. His dad and three uncles were in the Army, his mom was in the Navy. Both of his grandfathers also served. He graduated from high school with a 4.2 GPA. His mother said he was "very, very dedicated to what he did" and "believed in what they were doing over there."
Army Spc. Eric Lembke, 25, Plant City. He was killed Oct. 23, 2009, by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. He graduated from Plant City High School. He was married and had two young children. He had worked at a grocery store but joined the Army because "he wanted to take better care of his family," his brother said.
Army Spc. David A. Croft Jr., 22, Plant City. He died Jan. 5, 2010, after Iraqi insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device and small arms fire. It was his second deployment in Iraq. He was engaged to be married. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks inspired him to join the Army. Family members described him as "the best person you ever wanted to be around."
Marine Sgt. Daniel M. Angus, 28, Thonotosassa. He died Jan. 24, 2010, in combat in Afghanistan while on his third tour of duty. He was an Armwood High School graduate and had a wife and young daughter. He was known for his dependability. Friends called him "a beautiful human being" and "a light in the darkness."
Marine Cpl. Jonathan D. Porto, 26, St. Petersburg/Largo. He died in Afghanistan on March 14, 2010. Married with a baby daughter, he cheered his wife through delivery via a phone call from Afghanistan; the delivery room heard him crying. Before deployment, he recorded videos of him reading for his daughter. She cooed when she heard him reading If You Give a Cat a Cupcake.
Army Spc. David W. Thomas, 40, St. Petersburg. He died serving in Afghanistan on June 27, 2010. The son of a Navy man, he signed up for the Navy a week after high school graduation, but quit after three years. He later joined the Marines, did three tours in Iraq, then became a recruiter. He didn't like sending people to war, so he quit. He later joined the Army. He was a father of four.
Army Pfc. Paul O. Cuzzupe, 23, Plant City. He died Aug. 8, 2010, when insurgents attacked his unit in Afghanistan with an improvised explosive device — a week after he was honored for trying to save an Afghan child's life. His parents served in the Army. He was active in church, regularly read his Bible and played in a Christian rock band. His Army buddies nicknamed him "Care Bear."
Marine Lance Cpl. Nathaniel J. A. Schultz, 19, Safety Harbor. He died in Afghanistan on Aug. 21, 2010. He joined the Marines after graduating from Countryside High School. After some trouble in his youth, he lived at the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch from 2007 to 2009, where "he became a man," his mother said. Friends and family said he was funny and bright.
Army Spc. David A. Hess, 25, Ruskin. He died Oct. 10, 2010, in an explosion in Afghanistan, his family said. He had a wife and young son. Family members described him as fun-loving and responsible. He joined the Army because he needed income after he was laid off from his construction job, his family said.
Marine Cpl. Johnathan W. Taylor, 23, Homosassa. He died in Afghanistan on Feb. 22, 2011. He spent four years in Junior ROTC at Lecanto High School and attended a Navy Sea Cadet program. "He was a good Marine through and through," his mother said. "It was the most important thing in his life."
Army Pfc. Michael C. Mahr, 26, Homosassa. He was killed March 22, 2011, in Afghanistan when enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire. He was married with three children. "He beamed when he talked about the Army," his mother said. "That was what he was meant to do."
Marine Lance Cpl. Ronald D. Freeman, 25, Plant City. He was killed April 28, 2011, by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. He was married and is survived by a daughter who turned a year old the day he died and a son born 10 days before his death. Family members said he could have been anything, but he wanted to be a Marine. He shed more than 100 pounds to get there.