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Last Maryland soldier killed in Afghanistan was overseas with son

Katherine Turner, with her youngest child, 10-year old Xavier, at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, where her husband, Sgt. Major Wardell Turne will be honored.
Katherine Turner, with her youngest child, 10-year old Xavier, at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, where her husband, Sgt. Major Wardell Turne will be honored. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

The family resemblance is clear from the photograph, even without looking at the name Turner stitched to the front of the two Army uniforms. By chance, the two men had deployed to Afghanistan at the same time — the young son on his first overseas mission, the father on what he planned to be his last.

To Katherine Turner, at home in the United States, it was a great comfort that the pair were overseas together.

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"It was going to be all right," she said. "That's how we saw it."

Spc. Devin Turner and his father, Sgt. Maj. Wardell Turner, were able to visit one another during their deployments and planned to celebrate Thanksgiving together. But on the Monday before the holiday, a chaplain and a general took Devin Turner aside and told him that his father had been killed in a bomb attack earlier that day.

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"I didn't talk for maybe two hours," Turner said. "When they told me the news, I didn't know how to take it."

Turner was the only native Marylander killed in combat last year. His family will come to Baltimore Monday and visit Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens to attend a Memorial Day ceremony honoring him. He is one of the almost 7,000 U.S. service members killed since 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq, conflicts that have proved difficult for leaders in Washington to completely disentangle themselves from.

The combat mission in Afghanistan officially came to a close at the end of last year, but some 10,000 American troops remain deployed on a mission to aid the country's domestic security forces. They are set to stay until the end of 2016.

And in Iraq, U.S. troops and air power have returned to aid the Iraqi government in its battle against the Islamic State terrorist organization. Last week, the group secured victories that by some estimates put almost half of Syria under its control, and it does not appear that the American mission will conclude any time soon.

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After the Army told Devin Turner, 21, about his father, officials asked if he wanted to escort his body back to the United States. He immediately said yes.

"I'd rather do it myself than have some stranger," Turner said. "It was something I had to do."

Turner rode in the back of a C-130 transport plane making the long journey home beside the flag-draped casket of his father and another soldier killed in the same attack. He arrived just before Thanksgiving and was home long enough for the family to celebrate a Christmas of mixed emotions together.

The 48-year-old Wardell Turner, a military policeman was an organized man, his wife said. And so he had found time to gather gifts for her, their four sons and their daughter and get them shipped back well before December rolled around. So while Wardell Turner was not home to honor the family tradition of snuggling up to watch Charlie Brown, he had left something for them to hold onto.

The family sat in a circle and unwrapped the presents one by one, Katherine Turner said. There were scarves, traditional Afghan costumes, coveted headphones and chess boards — something Wardell Turner had collected wherever he traveled. Each one was an expression of himself, but perfectly suited to whomever it was for.

"He was able even though he was not here, present in the physical, to make us realize just how much we meant to him," Katherine Turner said. "It was very special."

Wardell Turner was from Nanticoke, Md., and the couple met more than three decades ago at a New Year's Eve dance when Katherine was a freshman in high school on the Eastern Shore. Wardell had been too shy to ask her to the dance floor, so he dispatched a cousin to do the job, she recalled. Once the intermediary extended the invitation, they danced all night.

He attended Towson University on an athletic scholarship and played football. The couple married in 1991, two years after he graduated, but life in Salisbury, where they settled, offered the couple few opportunities. The Army looked like a good way to broaden their horizons.

He enlisted in 1993, embarking on a career that took him across the United States, as well as to bases in Germany and South Korea. He earned decorations, climbed the enlisted ranks and deployed to Bosnia in the 1990s and then to Iraq at the start of the war in 2003.

Former Army Capt. Jacob Mathew worked with Turner in Korea when Mathew was still fairly green. He recalled Turner, the senior enlisted soldier in the company he commanded, as generous with the benefits of his experience.

"I relied heavily on him," Mathew said. "The most profound experience in terms of working closely with a non-commissioned officer was with Sergeant Major Turner."

But what was especially important to Mathew, who did not have a family to go overseas with, was that Turner took him into his home. Turner would host dinners, cooking up barbecue.

"His family pretty much took me under their wing," Mathew said. "We were always together."

Katherine Turner said sometimes her husband's military career would extend into their home life. She recalled one time when he rolled out his brusque drill-sergeant style on their children and she had to remind him to ease up. But her husband had a soft side too, she said.

He was assigned to the headquarters of the U.S. Army Garrison at Fort Drum in New York when he was sent to Afghanistan in July 2014 to help train the country's security forces. Devin Turner said his father had never liked how deployments took him from his family, missing birthdays and holidays together. He planned to retire so his youngest son, Xavier, would not have to grow up living the nomadic life of an Army child.

Devin Turner knew his mother was happy the two men would be deployed together, but he did not want his father to come, figuring Afghanistan was too dangerous.

Katherine Turner, who still lives in New York, said the assignment almost did not materialize, but she's banished any thoughts of "What if?"

"I have to accept that it was his time," she said. "As one of the officers down range communicated to me, he was doing what he loved."

In January, Wardell Turner was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, something he had said he wanted if he was killed in action.

"It was what he earned," Katherine Turner said. "If he was not able to live and enjoy the fruits of his labor in retirement, that was the least I could see. … It means a lot for him to be at Arlington. He's among good company."

Devin Turner is now based at Fort Hood, Texas, and is considering his future with the Army. His father's career inspired him to sign up while he was still in high school, he said, but the work is not exactly what he expected — having anticipated more humanitarian work. After the funeral, though, things were clear and Turner knew there was at least one thing he had to do — gather up his courage and return to Afghanistan and finish out his tour.

"My father would have thought it was for the best," he said. "That's one thing my dad always told us, don't leave something unfinished."

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Memorial Day Observance

When: 10 a.m. May 25

Where: Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, 200 E. Padonia Road, Timonium

Honoring: Sgt. Maj. Wardell Turner, killed in Afghanistan in 2014

Participants: Col. Tom Manion, USMC (Ret.), co-author of "Brothers Forever"; Brig. Gen. Timothy Gowen, Assistant Adjutant General-Army for the Maryland National Guard.

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