Soldier From Illinois Killed During 9th Deployment

After nine tours of duty, Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Grider was killed in Afghanistan in September on his 30th birthday. Friends and family say despite the frequent deployments, Grider was still the happy-go-lucky kid they all called "Hank," and that he had found his calling in the military. Rachel Lippmann reports for St. Louis Public Radio.

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Some the country's elite warriors - a team from the United States Special Operations Command - will gather next week at Fort Bragg, North Carolina to remember one of their own.

Sergeant First Class Ronald Aaron Grider was shot and killed in Kunduz Province in Afghanistan in September. It was his 30th birthday. He was the father of a young daughter, and he was on his ninth deployment to a combat zone.

Friends and family told St. Louis Public Radio's Rachel Lippmann that despite the frequent deployments, Grider was still the happy-go-lucky kid that they called Hank.

RACHEL LIPPMANN: Leroy's Tavern near Bethalto, Illinois, about 35 miles northeast of St. Louis, is the place where people from the area gather to drink a beer, smoke a cigarette, watch TV, or just enjoy each other's company. Ned Thompson says few of the people here remembering his nephew Aaron could have predicted the little blond boy would grow up to be in the Army's Special Forces.

Mr. NED THOMPSON: First thing he'd do is he'd give you a hug. That was - that's just his nature. When he was little, he was just an extremely goofy kid.

LIPPMANN: Thompson says he isn't sure what first attracted Grider to the Army. But by sophomore year of high school, he had decided to become a Ranger. Grider enlisted as an infantryman a month shy of his 18th birthday. He believed so fully in the Army's post-9/11 mission that he switched Ranger regiments to get a chance to go to Afghanistan. He would eventually deploy twice to Afghanistan and seven times to Iraq.

But when Grider came home, and his family and friends would gather like they have at Leroy's to eat, drink and swap unrepeatable stories, Army life would go on the back burner.

Mr. STEVE BEHRENS: I got the impression he was trying to make me comfortable.

LIPPMANN: Steve Behrens knew Grider from the time the sergeant was in diapers.

Mr. BEHRENS: He never got into the military aspect of it. He just wanted to make sure when he was home, that we all got together and we all had a good time and we all loved one another.

LIPPMANN: In fact, Aaron said so little about his life in the Army that his family didn't know he had earned two bronze stars until members of his squad told them.

Ron Grider says his son had talked to a pastor about entering the seminary and taking his life in a new direction. But ultimately, he opted to stay in the Army for a full 20 years.

Mr. RON GRIDER: He had a big thing to wrestle with: Which job would benefit other people more? The pastor said, I don't know. He said, well, I've been thinking, maybe I can stay in and do this until get my 20, and then go to seminary and come back and help the other way. Maybe I can do them both.

LIPPMANN: Thompson says his nephew served as an unofficial chaplain for older warriors in his squadron. The longer he stayed in, Thompson says, the more he sought comfort in his religion.

A soldier injured in the same attack that killed Aaron Grider told the family about his last moments. Thompson says it sums up the compassionate kid he calls Hank.

Mr. THOMPSON: He knew that he was going to die, because he was actually - he was bleeding out. He looked up at these guys that were trying to take care of him. And he said, it's OK, closed his eyes and died.

LIPPMANN: For NPR news, I'm Rachel Lippmann in St. Louis.

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