1. Military

Twice in one year, a soldier's death rocks small school in Indian Rocks Beach

The marquee at Indian Rocks Christian School pays tribute to Staff Sgt. Matthew Sitton, who was killed in Afghanistan.
The marquee at Indian Rocks Christian School pays tribute to Staff Sgt. Matthew Sitton, who was killed in Afghanistan.
Published Aug. 11, 2012

They played on the same high school baseball team.

They ran with the same friends, graduated with the same class.

And they followed each other into battle.

The family of Staff Sgt. Matthew Steven Sitton, 26, learned Thursday that the Indian Rocks Christian School graduate died this week after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, just a month from returning home.

His death comes a year after friend and fellow graduate, Spc. Frank Gross, 25, died in similar fashion. Gross was 21 days into his first deployment.

The news was another tragedy for the school, with an enrollment of about 700, and its extended family.

"That just brings it home to the school once more," said superintendent Don Mayes. "It's another baseball player, another student from that class."

They were friends, but also competitors.

On the baseball team, where Sitton played center field and Gross pitched, they were always trying to outdo one another.

"But they were also very, very good team members," said Craig Gross, Frank's father.

The two friends graduated in 2004 in a class of about 50 graduates. Gross received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Full Sail University near Orlando. Sitton attended the University of West Florida and Southeastern University in Lakeland. But then he had a change of heart. He joined the Army in March 2006.

"He loved what he did," said his mother, Cheryl Sitton. "It was a great fit for him. . . . You'd give him a challenge and he would step up to it."

Gross soon followed his friend. Before enlisting, he asked Matthew for advice, Cheryl Sitton said.

Gross was deployed June 28, 2011. Less than a month later, he was killed after an explosive caused his vehicle to roll over.

After Gross' death, the Sitton family prayed with his parents. They attended his memorial service.

"It's a nightmare," said Craig Gross, Frank's father. "Something that nobody wants to experience."

One year later, the parents' roles would reverse. On Thursday, Antonia Gross, Frank's mother, called Cheryl Sitton after hearing the news.

"Unfortunately," Sitton said, "we're bonded in a deeper way than we were before because we share a grief that not many people know."

Matt Sitton's family is headed to the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to bring home their son. Services are pending.

Steve Sitton, his father, said Matt always strived for the best, whether it was fishing or being a dad. So the thought of his son dying overseas never crossed his mind. "I never thought they would get him," he said. "He was always the first with everything. He would beat everybody at every game he ever played."

Sitton, stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C., was deployed for the third time in February. His son, Brodey, was about 2 months old, but Sarah Sitton, his wife of three years, made sure he never missed a milestone.

She sent him photographs of Brodey's first time crawling. His first meal.

On Father's Day, while the family Skyped, the baby said his first word.


Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.


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