This story and photo come from Army SGT Marc Loi of the 319th MPAD. I’ve written about CPL Gross before and wanted to highlight this story, that shows our troops don’t forget our Fallen Warriors.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan – Under a canopy tent just across from the dirt road many of their vehicles travel to and from every day, making the dusty trek into the town that serves as the final stop before entering Pakistan, the soldiers of Charlie Company sat, their sunglasses shielding their eyes from the lightly-colored, fine dirt that kicked up with each gust of wind.
For these soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, Fort Hood, Texas, deployed here in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, many things were still the same. With country music blasting on the radio and hot dogs and hamburgers sizzling on the nearby grill, their leaders tirelessly flipping and re-flipping the food so familiar to their childhood, ensuring each piece was fit for consumption, it seemed nothing had changed. This was American soldiers relaxing; leaders taking care of their soldiers; a piece of home – an experience so familiar to the American culture they grew up embracing and later swearing to give up their lives for.
But just listen carefully – listen beyond the twangy, deep voice of Billy Currington on the radio, sizzling of the grill, soda cans being opened and soldiers loudly patting one another on the back – listen to the cracking in their voices and the pregnant pause between sentences, and a visitor, no matter how unfamiliar with the unit, would realize something was missing.
As they would later admit, that missing element was the laughter of a friend, the way he told stories and how he made them laugh. Missing was their buddy and confidant, fellow warfighter and the person they looked up to. Missing was the bodybuilder and athlete they’d grown to know and love, someone with whom they’d shared many of these same cookouts. Missing was Cpl. Frank R. Gross, killed in an IED attack on the unit’s first day of combat operations.
Aug. 19, on what would have been the Oldsmar, Fla., native’s 26th birthday, members of his platoon gathered here to celebrate his life, and in doing so, also opened the floodgate of emotions they’d held onto since losing him July 16, shedding away any bravado they might have previously put on regarding their close friend’s death.
“It’s still fresh,” said Pfc. Justin Forcier, a close friend and member of the unit to which Gross was assigned. “We still talk about him and the good times, but it still hurts.”
The first time they met, Forcier and Gross instantly clicked, sharing a love for nutrition and fitness. Later, the two grew closer as they became workout buddies, often sharing personal stories and ideas, with each acting as the other’s confidant. Just before they left for Afghanistan, Gross’s mother, Antonia, came to Fort Hood to visit her son, where they had dinner and created many more memories, Forcier said.
Those are the memories Forcier prefers to remember, he said, rather than the death of his friend. It is in celebrating Gross’s life – the fact that at 25, he’d already held a Master’s degree, that he was dedicated to his job and even more dedicated to America, that he was quick to volunteer for a task and even quicker with his wits, that the platoon remembers Gross for.
“He was very spirited,” Forcier said. “He was up for any – anything that life had to offer him.”
It was in that spirit that Gross joined the Army, his squad leader, Staff Sgt. Joe Cantu said, remembering the time Gross had told him he joined the Army because he’d accomplished other things in life, and wanted to do more for his country. Rather than joining as an officer – which he was more than qualified to do – Gross joined the enlisted ranks as “one of the Joes,” because he wanted to experience all the different facets the Army had to offer.
“He was very intelligent and highly motivated,” Cantu said. “On a personal level, he was quirky and easy to relate to. His sense of humor was one of his best characteristics.”
Another fellow soldier, Pfc. Anthony Rizzo, also remembered Gross for his love of life, and that although he always took his job seriously, the former high school baseball star was full of color and life.
“We used to have a lot of laughs together,” Rizzo said, cracking into a smile and then chuckled, trying to conceal the fond and private memories he had of Gross as he reminisced. “He had a short temper, so he’d be yelling sometimes, and we’d end up laughing about it later.”
But no matter how good the memories, no matter how many smiles talking about Gross brought to their faces, the soldiers also remembered the day as if it were yesterday. Just as quickly as he’d come into their lives, Gross vanished, leaving a space forever empty.
Rizzo, who was with Gross the day he died, said they’d talked earlier that morning before leaving on that fateful convoy. They’d caught up with each other, and right before they left, Rizzo gave Gross a Clif bar.
“I knew he was hungry, and that he didn’t like a lot of junk food,” Rizzo said, pausing at times to reflect on the day. “I had a Clif bar in my pocket, so I stopped and gave it to him.”
Riding in the vehicle behind Gross, Rizzo heard the terrible sound of the IED and witnessed it going off, flipping over the vehicle Gross was riding in.
“I saw when the IED hit,” Rizzo said in almost a hushed tone. “I wish I could have gotten out to help him.
“After he was airlifted out … I helped pick up some of the remains of the wreck, and I found the wrapper to the Clif bar I gave him,” Rizzo added.
“I was in shock,” Forcier said. “You don’t ever think that’s going to happen to someone really close to you – someone who’s a close friend. I am still in denial about it.”
Although he was not there at the scene, Cantu was the radio operator on the day Gross was killed and remembered hearing the call through the radio.
“When the call came through, I was the one taking it,” Cantu said. “It was really chaotic, but at the same time, I didn’t have the time to stop and process it.
“It wasn’t until about the next day that it actually hit,” he continued.
Although losing Gross hurt and losing a friend hurt even more, Cantu said he drove on, mainly because as a non-commissioned officer, his job was to take care of his soldiers, yet at the same time also accomplishing his missions. Like Cantu, the soldiers who were closest to Gross also felt the same.
“It’s always going to stick with us,” said Forcier. “We will always hold him close to our memory and our heart, but he would want us to focus on what we’re doing.”
Overall, the soldiers said the gathering was a celebration of Gross’s life, rather than a memorial, and also served as part of the grieving process, allowing them not only the time to reflect upon his life, but also to celebrate a life that was cut far too short.
“I think about it just about every day,” Rizzo said. “It opened a lot of our eyes on what we’re protecting and fighting for.”
With their food blessed by a chaplain – who reminded them to remember the good memories Gross created with them, the soldiers began talking among themselves again, sometimes bursting into laughter at the memories they had of Gross. As they broke the quietness and the sounds of joy and laughter returned, somewhere nearby, as if right on cue, the radio began playing another country song.
Though drowned out by the voices of soldiers, the nearby generators and other sounds often found on forward operating bases, the soft, distinct voice of Alan Jackson, along with its sweet, melancholy Southern accent repeated a chorus that, perhaps, the soldiers had taken to heart: “ … we won’t be sad. We’ll be glad for all the life we’ve had … remember when.”