Even before his 1991 graduation from Tolar High School, Riley Stephens envisioned his life in service to his country as an Army soldier.
For almost 20 years, he lived that dream.
Sgt. 1st Class Stephens, a Green Beret with the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), died Friday from a single gunshot to the neck from small-arms gunfire during battle in Afghanistan’s Wardak province.
Riley’s stepmother, JoAnn Stephens, confirmed that the Department of Defense announced that his death raised the official number of U.S. troops killed during the war in Afghanistan to the 2,000 mark.
“He was a wonderful son, and we really are proud that he served his country and he died doing what he wanted to do. He loved his family and friends, and he was an all-around pretty good kid,” JoAnn said, noting that the family was notified without delay, sometime Friday afternoon.
“You always hold your breath when they’re gone and cry when they get home because they’re safe. You’re thankful,” JoAnn said. “But he loved what he did, and he was good at it. He liked to have a good time, and he was definitely goal-driven. He always strived to succeed, and to do the best he could do.”
JoAnn said Riley was a career soldier and would have marked his 20th year in the service in January.
He was planning to retire after the current tour in Afghanistan, plus one more deployment following that.
JoAnn and Riley’s father, Michael Stephens, live about a mile east of Tolar and moved to the area in 1976.
Riley’s three children are Rylee Ann Stephens, 2, Morgan Stephens, 7, and Austin Brooks, 17. Riley’s wife, Tiffany, lives with Rylee in Fayetteville, N.C., near Fort Bragg. Riley is also survived by a younger brother, Kenneth Stephens, who is also an Army Staff Sergeant and has 15 years of military service.
A candlelight vigil is planned for 7:30 tonight at the old football field in Tolar, on Hill City Highway (FM 56).
The family requested that location for the vigil because that was the field Riley played on when he was a standout player for the Rattlers.
Because of limited parking at the old field, arrangements have been made to have school buses available for a shuttle service so that those attending can park at the large parking lot next to the new stadium at Tolar High School.
Organizers asked that the parking at the old field be reserved for older attendees and those with handicaps.
JoAnn said that Riley’s father and Kenneth flew on Saturday to Dover, Del., and were still waiting to receive Riley’s body from military personnel once it was flown in from Germany.
At press time, funeral service details were still pending. JoAnn said he will be buried at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery in Grand Prairie.
Stephens was based at Fort Bragg. He was serving his seventh tour in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, but had only been there 10 days this time when he was killed.
“He was still very connected to Tolar,” JoAnn said. “He wanted to serve his country and do whatever he could. He was a hardcore soldier. He was definitely a warrior.”
She said he had previously earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart medal. As a Special Forces solder, he was a long-range sniper as well as a medic.
“They were on a sweep of the area, and he was on point,” JoAnn said.
Riley died en route to an Army hospital after the shooting, she said.
JoAnn said Riley was one of those featured in a 2011 book titled, “Lions of Kandahar: The Story of a Fight Against All Odds,” by Rusty Bradley and Kevin Maurer.
Stephens was noted in the book as being a member of a Special Forces team that helped rescue Canadian soldiers in 2008, JoAnn said.
“He wanted to be in the service, even in high school. That was Riley’s life,” said retired Tolar teacher Norma Coleman, who Riley thought “hung the moon,” according to JoAnn. “He was well liked by the students and the staff. He was an active young man. He was a real good football player – No. 66.”
Coleman, who retired in 2006 after 44 years teaching in Tolar, said Riley was involved in 4-H and ag at Tolar.
He once bought a calf from her and her husband, Jim, who knew Riley as well as she did. She said Riley visited her about seven years ago when he came to Tolar on leave.
“He was telling me how the soldiers with him were his family and how much they meant to him,” Coleman said.
JoAnn said that Coleman mentioned another notable conversation Riley had with her.
“He told her ‘I get to do all these things and get to protect my family, my children and my country, and it’s a privilege to serve and take care of people’,” JoAnn said.
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