Mark Wilson: Tolar’s Sgt. Riley Stephens ‘was living for that mission’

October 13, 2012
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UNWELCOME NEWS: Michael (Mic) Stephens and his wife JoAnn knew immediately what had happened when an Army chaplain and a member of the Green Berets arrived at their home east of Tolar.

When Tolar’s Riley Stephens joined the Army almost 20 years ago, Mic Stephens made something special for his son to wear on a neck chain.

It was a cross, made from horseshoe nails. Riley, a Green Beret, had it on when he was killed by enemy gunfire on Sept. 28 at age 39 during a battle in Afghanistan.

Mic (Michael) reached down into his T-shirt and pulled it out to show the cross – so full of meaning in so many ways for the Stephens family.

“Now, it’ll be on my neck forever,” Mic said.

Sgt. 1st Class Riley Gene Stephens was a medic and long-range sniper with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne). He would have completed 20 years in the Army in January.

Mic’s wife, JoAnn Stephens, had done a first-class job of dealing with news media and other necessary tasks leading up to Sunday’s funeral at Tolar Baptist Church. That enabled Mic and his younger son, Army Sgt. 1st Class Ken Stephens, a 34-year-old MP, to grieve in private. They were also free to focus on other family members and close friends who contacted them.

On Oct. 10, Mic was ready to talk about his son.

They used Skype to communicate when Riley was away. During the last conversation they had on Skype, Riley conveyed a loving message.

“He said, ‘You’re awesome,’” Mic said of those last few moments when he saw Riley alive.

But Mic said he felt something bad was going to happen, and believes that Riley did, too.

“I had a feeling he wasn’t going to come back,” said Mic, a 28-year employee of Somervell County’s Unimin Corp. silica plant, where he is a shift supervisor. “He gave me that cocky smile, and shut the computer off. Warriors have a sense. They just do. Of course, he told me, ‘I’ll be back.’”

Riley had a reputation of being gruff and tough, but was far from one-dimensional. “Unique” was how Mic described him.

Riley not only was a second-team all-state defensive end for the Rattlers, he was salutatorian for Tolar’s Class of 1991.

“You weren’t nobody unless you were insulted by Riley,” Mic said, before pointing out a gentler side. “In school, if he got in trouble and he was in a fight, most of the time the reason why was he was defending somebody (against) a bully.”

Riley loved horses and enjoyed hunting and fishing, according to Mic, who not only taught his two sons to be outdoorsmen, but other youngsters as well.

SUCK IT UP

Riley stood up for himself and others – and expected the same from those around him. One of his favorite sayings was, “Suck it up.”

“He learned that from me,” said Mic, noting a time years ago when he stitched up a puncture wound just below Riley’s mouth after a mishap at home.

Suck it up, indeed.

Mic and Riley – both being headstrong – butted heads a few times. But love was never absent, according to Mic.

“We’ve been mushy his whole life, and he was gruff in his own right,” Mic said. “There’s never been a time when he (left) that he didn’t tell me he loved me – in front of the whole world.”

Several references were made to Riley in the 2011 book, “Lions of Kandahar: The Story of a Fight Against All Odds,” by Army Major Rusty Bradley and Kevin Maurer. The book recounted key events that took place involving Green Berets in 2006 during Operation Medusa in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

A passage in Chapter 7 says, “As the team medic, Riley provided the team and our Afghan soldiers with all our care. You didn’t go to Riley for a stomachache unless you wanted to be called a sissy or worse. But if you were lying in a pool of blood, Riley was the first person you wanted kneeling at your side.”

Riley wasn’t portrayed as a choir boy, but clearly showed he was respected as a highly valuable soldier and medic.

“It just represents him as the Texan that he is, and the warrior – that they all are,” Mic said.

Mic and Riley got to spend quality time together when they drove to Fort Bragg, N.C., before his last deployment. They left early and went to a Spartan Race – a mud run – in West Virginia. Riley participated, along with members of his Green Beret team.

The long drive gave father and son extended time to talk, one on one. Part of the road trip was used to talk about Riley’s wishes for his funeral services and other essential information – just in case he didn’t return.

A soldier’s parent can’t always ignore the fact that death is always lurking.

“You might be driving and have tears in your eyes, and pull over. Every once in awhile, it just hits you,” Mic said. “You tell yourself in your heart you’re going to be okay.”

JoAnn was home when a chaplain and a Green Beret pulled up in a vehicle at their home just east of Tolar. She immediately knew why they were there.

She phoned Mic, and he in turn had to take his own advice.

“We sucked it up the moment that he told us,” Mic said.

Through the pain, they are certain that the purpose for which Riley gave his life was pure and honorable.

“He was living for that mission,” Mic said. “I am proud. We raised two sons for this. They defend the country, and they know the cost.”

 

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