When he was home on leave from the war in Afghanistan last July, Army Sgt. 1st Class Riley Gene Stephens left a special message for his family – one he surely knew would be read with bleary eyes and felt with crushed hearts.
Stephens, a Green Beret who died on Sept. 28 in a gun battle in Wardak Province, left a letter in a safety deposit box along with his last will and testament.
His father, Michael (Mic) Stephens, shared the gripping words on Sunday with the capacity crowd of about 500 who attended Riley’s funeral at Tolar Baptist Church in Tolar. Mic explained that the letter was labeled, “Do not open unless I don’t come back.”
“Just remember that I died doing what I believed in, and I died with guys I loved,” Riley wrote. “I love you dad. Thank you for always being there.”
Mic responded out loud to his son’s words with a simple, “I tried.”
Mic, using his own heartfelt words, then reminded the attendees that it’s the men and women in the military who “take the battle to them because they don’t want the blood to be on our shores.”
Riley – a member of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) would have completed 20 years in the Army in January.
His current stint, which began just 10 days before his death by small arms fire, came while filling in for another Special Forces medic with a different unit. Riley had completed five complete tours in Afghanistan, and this recent one was his second partial tour as a volunteer.
Mic’s younger son, Sgt. 1st Class Ken Stephens, an Army MP with 15 years of experience based at Fort Hood, later joined him on stage to honor Riley.
Next, a family friend read a touching poem written about Riley after his death.
Mark Marsh, who played football with Riley in Tolar and who lived near the Stephens family residence east of town, read “Remembering Riley.” The heart-tugging poem was penned by his mother, Shirley Marsh. It included the lines, “He is irreplaceable in our hearts and our lives,” and “He did not know the meaning of the word quit.”
Last Wednesday, Riley was honored with a memorial candlelight vigil at Tolar’s old football field, where Riley played and earned second-team all-state as a hard-hitting defensive end. His jersey number, 66, was painted in the end zone of the field.
The vigil included a 21-gun salute along with emotional memories shared by speakers including family friend Jamie Gray, uncle Troy Armstrong and Army Ranger Dwayne Morris from Tolar.
Riley lived with wife Tiffany and daughter Rylee Ann Stephens, 2, in Fayetteville, N.C. Riley’s other two children are Morgan Stephens, 7, and Austin Brooks, 17.
Riley was featured in the 2011 book, “Lions of Kandahar: The Story of a Fight Against All Odds,” by Army Major Rusty Bradley and Kevin Maurer.
In Chapter 19, in the aftermath of being shot, Bradley wrote about receiving medical treatment from Medic Riley Stephens, who was also a long-range sniper and had a reputation of showing bravery under fire. While their unit was still under enemy attack, Riley “didn’t even flinch when several rounds pinged off the truck as he worked,” according to Bradley.
SERVICE AND PROCESSION
The casket arrived at the Cleburne Regional Airport on Saturday morning.
Each of the pallbearers were active Green Berets who had served with Riley at one time or another. The chaplain for the service at Tolar Baptist was with Riley’s 3rd Special Forces Group, from Fort Bragg, his home base in North Carolina.
Steve Creed, a lieutenant with the Fort Worth Fire Department, played the bagpipes to start the service.
Christy Sanders of Tolar’s Elm Grove Assembly of God, sang, “America, The Beautiful,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Members of the Lilly G. Riding Club of Stephenville were among those gathered in Tolar to witness the procession and pay tribute to Riley, about a block east of the church. Among those from the group on horseback was 26-year-old Dusty McCord, who said he just got out of the Texas State Guard in February.
Where Billings and Electric Road intersect with Highway 377 just east of Tolar, the procession passed underneath a giant U.S. flag – 33 feet long and 16 feet wide – draped sideways over the highway, suspended by two volunteer fire ladder trucks. It was donated by the Irving Fire Department.
“It was awesome,” Riley’s stepmother, JoAnn Stephens, said of the funeral and the procession. “It was way cool.
“From the church, to the people on the side of the road with flags and their hats off and saluting. It’s amazing the people who turned out and participated, and who care about our soldiers.”
JoAnn Stephens had described Riley as “a wonderful son,” as well as “a warrior” and a “hardcore” soldier.”
Sheila McCallum, who lives with her husband Bill near Pecan Plantation, was wiping tears from her eyes in the wake of the procession.
“Because my military ties are so strong, I get very emotional when it comes to the military. My dad was a Marine fighter pilot, and my husband was in the Navy,” McCallum said as Bill, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, visited with another area resident, who also had served in the military.
“I’m heartbroken for the family,” McCallum said. “And to look down the street and see fellow Americans honoring (Sgt. Stephens), it’s heartwarming. It gives me renewed confidence in America, especially when they have children with them.
“Everywhere you look, there are veterans and you never have any idea they have done anything extraordinary. They stood there (in service) for us.”
Bob Huston, 73, of Granbury, expressed the pain he felt watching the procession of the fallen soldier.
“This hurts. It really hurts,” said Huston, who served in various places across the globe from 1956-64 as an Army paratrooper. “I tear up. I worry about (our soldiers in combat). God bless him and his family. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child.”
Guy Shelton, a 79-year-old Granbury resident who served in the Army from 1955-58 in Germany, said he thought everyone should have lined the roadways to pay tribute to the fallen soldier.
“Afghanistan is terrible, but somebody has to be there. It got me right there,” Shelton said as he patted his left hand against his chest. He said he has a grandson in the 101st Army Airborne who is now at Fort Bragg – which was also the home base for Sgt. Stephens.
The funeral procession was escorted from the Cleburne Regional Airport to Tolar, and then to the cemetery in Dallas by members of the North Texas Patriot Guard. There were an estimated 80 motorcycles representing the Patriot Guard on Sunday, and about 50 on Saturday on the ride from Cleburne. That’s according to North Texas Patriot Guard ride captain Rusty McNab of Keller.
“Our mission is to stand and honor our patriots,” McNab said. “When we have a soldier killed in action, it is a special honor for us, by invitation of the family. We stand by the flag line at various services to show them the highest level of respect. It is an unbelievable honor and a humbling experience.”
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