Tolar honors fallen hero with candlelight vigil

October 6, 2012

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TOLAR – As the memorable song, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” and other stirring classics were played to a backdrop of patriotism, friends of Sgt. 1st Class Riley Stephens of Tolar shared their own personal stories of the Army Special Forces soldier.

The candlelight ceremony was held Wednesday evening on the old Tolar football field where Riley made his mark as a standout football player.

Riley died Friday, Sept. 28, at age 39 after he was shot during a gun battle in Afghanistan.

“Everybody knew Riley,” said Brenda Strickland, echoing many others and describing him as having a soft heart despite projecting toughness.

“I’ve known Riley many, many years. He went to school with my children,” Strickland said. “He had a tough exterior, but he had a teddy bear of a heart. He loved his country very much.”

Strickland helped get the ball rolling for the vigil after she heard of Riley’s death.

“I got up Sunday morning and told my husband I felt led to do something in his honor,” Strickland said. “I posted that message on Facebook and the responses just started pouring in.”

Strickland said she had just chatted with Riley on Facebook two days before his death – with a friendly “argument” over the upcoming election.

“I had another one with him right before that, telling him I appreciated him,” Strickland said. “I told him I loved him and appreciated him, and if anything ever happened to him, I’d be devastated.”

She said everyone always knew exactly where they stood when it came to Riley.

“He was very blunt and to the point,” Strickland said.

The memorial ceremony featured a 21-gun military salute, a flag presentation and a salute by members of VFW Post 7835. Jim Trimble, local VFW chaplain and district chairman, was master of ceremonies for the event.

Riley, who was born on Aug. 26, 1973 in Michigan, was due to mark his 20th year in the Army this January, according to his stepmother, JoAnn Stephens. He previously earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart medal for his service.

Riley was salutatorian of Tolar’s Class of 1991. And, by all accounts, he was an outstanding defensive end on the Rattler football squad.

He is survived by his father, Michael (Mick) Stephens and JoAnn, both of Tolar, along with younger brother Ken Stephens, who is also an Army Sgt. 1st Class.

Riley and his family made their home in Fayetteville, N.C., near his home base, Fort Bragg. Survivors include his wife Tiffany and 2-year-old daughter Rylee Ann Stephens of the home. Riley’s other two children are Morgan Stephens, 7, and Austin Brooks, 17.

The family announced that Riley will be buried at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery in Dallas.

Among those who spoke at the vigil were family friend Jamie Gray, uncle Troy Armstrong and Army Ranger Dwayne Morris from Tolar.

“The whole family and everybody was just blowed away,” JoAnn Stephens said of the vigil. “Tolar went above and beyond everything. His dad was so proud, with the honor guard and the 21-gun salute and the commentary by everybody. Words cannot describe how proud and honored we were.”

CUP OF TEA

David Webb, one of those attending who played with Riley on the Tolar Rattler football team, said the traits he showed on the field were also ideal for a soldier.

“He was aggressive and tough and he couldn’t be blocked – and I couldn’t beat him to the quarterback,” said Webb, who along with his wife Amy wore Tolar football jerseys bearing Riley’s name and number (66). “The Army was his cup of tea.”

There had been mention of Riley planning to retire at some point in the near future after reaching the 20-year point of his career, but Webb said, “I don’t think he would have.”

Armstrong, Riley’s uncle, shared several humorous memories. He said Riley used to brag that he touched the football on every play. That, Armstrong pointed out, was because Riley was the team’s center when Tolar was on offense.

Armstrong said Riley, who he treated “like a little brother,” was second-team all-state at defensive end.

“He played with fire in his eye,” Armstrong said. “Mick (Michael) and Riley are a big part of our family.”

TOUGH AS NAILS

Granbury resident Jeff Ives, who was born and raised in Tolar, met Riley during their elementary school days.

“He was one of my best friends,” said Ives, who is a professional firefighter for Fort Worth. “I always knew he had my back. He always got to the quarterback first.

“He was an amazing football player. I was just glad he was on my football team. He was tough as nails, and I knew he’d do well in the Army.”

Ives said he got word of Riley’s death while he was watching a football game Friday night, Sept. 28, at Cornerstone Christian School.

“I thought Riley was invincible and indestructible because that’s the kind of guy he was,” Ives said. “It was a complete shock. I just started crying.”

Jason Everidge of Granbury, another former Tolar student who played football with Riley, also said he grew up with him. He said he has lots of fond memories of going fishing with Riley.

“He loved the outdoors, and he loved animals,” said Everidge, whose primary position was cornerback. “He had to be doing something all the time. He couldn’t be sitting still – whether we were fishing or playing war. He wasn’t a bully, but he would speak his mind, whether you liked it or not.”

Webb, Ives and Everidge were all in Riley’s senior class, and all played football together.

A RANGER’S STORY

Dwayne Morris, an Army Ranger from Tolar who also played football with Riley, had a remarkable battlefield story for those gathered.

He recounted being in a gun battle in Afghanistan when a fellow soldier was wounded. He described moving his buddy to a safer spot as the gunfire seemed to be closing in on them.

Then Morris said he looked up and saw a Green Beret moving toward him with his own unit to rescue the two Rangers. Then, he said, he realized it was his old Tolar High schoolmate, Riley Stephens.

JoAnn explained later that the two units were not on patrol together, but that it was an incredible coincidence that Morris crossed paths with Riley in such a dramatic and desperate battlefield situation.

“Larger than life, he was,” JoAnn said.

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OLD FRIENDS: Jeff Ives (left) and Jason Everidge were among the many friends who attended the memorial candlelight vigil Thursday night at the old football field in Tolar to honor Sgt. 1st Class Riley Stephens, an Army Special Forces member who was killed in battle while serving in Afghanistan. Ives and Everidge, among others who attended, played football with Stephens for the Rattlers.

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