Dozens honor fallen Tampa soldier, some want troops home now

07/17/12 Janelle Irwin
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Two soldiers killed in Afghanistan are being honored this week in Tampa. Today, a police motorcade escorted the body of Staff Sergeant Ricardo Seija and his family from MacDill Air Force Base through the streets of Tampa. Along Bayshore Boulevard dozens of supporters lined the road with American flags. The procession was a reminder of the high price of war. But Bruce Hockensmith with the Lutz Patriots said the event this morning was about respect, not politics.

“If they came home tomorrow that would please me, but if they’re there, as long as they’re there, I want them to know that I support them.”

Hockensmith said he wasn’t going to talk about why the U.S. is engaged in military combat in countries like Afghanistan while he was honoring a man who was just killed there.

“My main focus is supporting the troops. I don’t care if you believe in the war or if you don’t believe in the war. They are there serving this country and that is my main focus.”

Seija was 31-years-old and had a wife and young son who lived on a military base in Texas. He graduated from Tampa’s Leto High in 1999. Rachel Bernaby, decked out in patriotic red, white and blue knows all too well what war can do to a family. Dark sunglasses shielded her eyes, but under them she was dabbing away tears. Her son was killed in Afghanistan two and a half years ago.

“It just brings back memories and I know what they’re going through. When Jonathan came home, I was floored by the support and the people coming out and just lined the whole way and I never experienced that before and, you know, they didn’t know him.”

Most troops have been pulled from Iraq, but withdrawal from combat in Afghanistan won’t happen until the end of 2014 under the current timeline. According to the Department of Defense, more than 1600 soldiers have been killed in action there. Bernaby said she goes to events like this one to support the men and women who have died and to honor her own son. But she’s frustrated with watching family after family go through what she did.

“You don’t ever want to see it happen and sometimes you feel like it’s not going to end.”

The fallen soldier’s mother, Ignacia Seija, was quoted in a Fox 13 report saying she wants the war ended. Most people lining Bayshore Boulevard agreed that it would be nice to see troops withdrawn, but until then, it’s important to continue showing support to those left behind. Colleen K, a member of the Northdale OWLS seniors group, said its not just soldiers being killed in action that’s creating a problem. She cited an article she read in TIME magazine that said one active-duty service member commits suicide each day.

“I think that the VA organization needs to spend more money, more time and more research dealing with emotional aspects of returning home.”

She’s not surprised so many soldiers come home scarred not just from injuries, but from mental trauma. Until they can stop being ordered to kill, K added, it’s not going to get any better.

“Not having inside information as to really are there atomic bombs being made by these countries? Is there a lunatic over there willing to blow the world up? Yes. My gut feeling is that I still think we need to bring a great majority of them home.”

Walt Atzert, a member of Knights of Columbus Catholic men’s organization, wore elaborate regalia complete with a feathered cap. He said when they do come home there is a shocking difference between public opinion now verses when he returned from the Vietnam War.

“Our instructions were to switch into civilian clothes as soon as you can so you’re not, you know, a mark.”

“As everyone knows, we didn’t get quite the reception that – for doing our job and for these guys who have paid the ultimate sacrifice because, let’s face it, in Vietnam there was a lot of draftees. Guys that were sent there that didn’t want to go there, but the guys that are there are coming back now, they’re volunteers. It makes it more special to show them respect because they volunteered for the duty and they paid the ultimate price.”

Another procession will run along Bayshore Boulevard and through downtown Tampa tomorrow to honor Specialist Clarence Williams III. The procession will continue through Hernando County to a funeral home Chiefland. Willimas was killed in the same blast as Seija. He graduated from Hernando High School in 2008. Williams was 23-years-old.

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