Sgt. Eric Houck's family stood together, embracing, on Sunday as a bugler blew taps. A member of the Gunpowder Veterans of Foreign Wars proceeded forward to hand Houck's wife, Samantha, a folded American flag.
Houck, 25, of Perry Hall and two other soldiers were shot to death in the Peka Valley of the Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan last weekend in what is believed to have been an insider attack by an Afghan soldier who was allied with U.S. forces.
As family and friends prepared for the memorial service at the VFW Post 10067 in Middle River, Mike Houck said his son's killing left him with a void on Father's Day. The two would watch Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Orioles games together, he said.
"Father's Day for me is going to be different," he said. "I'm going to miss him. He was my friend; he was my buddy. We used to sit down and watch the games together. Or if he wasn't here, the game would be on, we'd be texting, FaceTime, messenger — it'd be like he was there watching the game with me."
Eric Houck, Sgt. William M. Bays, 29, of Barstow, Calif., and Cpl. Dillon C. Baldridge, 22, of Youngsville, N.C., were attacked June 10 by an Afghan soldier, the Associated Press reported. The Taliban said a Taliban loyalist had infiltrated the Afghan army "just to attack foreign forces," according to a spokesman quoted in the report.
The three soldiers were members of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, officials said.
Families of other fallen soldiers have shared their sympathies with the family, Mike Houck said.
"Lisa and I and Jessica and Samantha and the babies have joined a fraternity that nobody wants to belong to," he said. "But these families, the Gold Star families, have reached out to us, and they lent us their compassion."
Houck graduated from Perry Hall High School. He enlisted in the Army in May 2013 and deployed last fall, officials said.
Carleton Coles III, 25, of Perry Hall, said he became close with Houck in the third grade, when another student spat a racial epithet at him, and Houck stood up for him.
"I'm proud to say he was my best friend," he said. "He was always looking out for everybody and never took anything for granted."
Coles said Houck had big ears and an ever-present grin that could always put a smile on your face "no matter what mood you're in." He spoke softly but was competitive, playing baseball, football and soccer. His advice was always honest, Coles said, never sugar-coated.
"I could go to him with any problem or situation," he said. "He was a genuine human, always there to do the right thing."
When Coles went to Salisbury for college and Houck headed to basic training in Alabama, the two would exchange only the occasional text message. But they never fell out of touch.
"We didn't talk much, but every time we'd see each other, it was like we'd been chilling the day before," Coles said.
Larry Horlamus, a neighbor and family friend, said his youngest son Mike, 24, grew up playing Little League baseball and soccer with Houck. The children would shoot movies in the basement and play pickup basketball in the court in the summer, he said.
"He was a lively little boy, in and out of the front door," Horlamus said.
As a father of a soldier, Mike Houck said he is passionate about advocating for better care for soldiers with mental issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The staggering number of these men that are taking their [own] lives, it needs to be addressed," he said. "Someone needs to take care of these guys."
Mike Houck said he has no regrets about his relationship with his son — himself a father of two.
"Some fathers say, 'I wish I'd have said this,' 'I wish I'd have done that,' 'I never had a chance to do this.' Not me," he said. "Because he knew how I felt. And I knew how he felt about me. That is one thing, one burden I don't have to shoulder."