Father of Seven Killed in Action in Iraq

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Army Sgt. First Class Stephen J. White was a 20-year soldier, the father of seven children and wed to a soldier on active duty. As Tanya Ott of member station WBHM reports, White died along with three other soldiers on his fourth tour of duty in Iraq.

SCOTT SIMON, host: Talladega, Alabama has laid to rest its first soldier to die in Iraq. Sgt. First Class Stephen White and four other soldiers died January 5 in Najaf. A roadside bomb destroyed their vehicle. Sgt. White was a 20-year army veteran who had planned to retire. From member station WBHM in Birmingham, Tanya Ott reports.

Ms. TANYA OTT (Reporter, WBHM): Stephen White was a man truly blessed with family, he and his wife and seven children, and 20 brothers, 11 sisters, scores of cousins, nieces, and nephews. At his funeral, it was standing room only in Kelly Springs Missionary Baptist Church

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Ms. OTT: Friends and family all say Stephen White was an easygoing man. Eula Morris was a cousin and White's first grade teacher.

Ms. EULA MORRIS (Family Member of Stephen White): He was a smart little boy. He was a sweet, kind of shy, pleasant, just a lovable little boy who was loved by all the children.

Ms. OTT: Ricky Swain was a high school classmate at Talladega High. They served together in the ROTC. Swain says even then White was a leader.

Mr. RICKY SWAIN (Classmate of Stephen White): Well, he was quiet, you know. He didn't talk that much, you know, and stuff, but he was a good person and stuff.

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Ms. OTT: While he may have lived his life in a quiet way, at his funeral, the crowd, some 500 strong, celebrated his life.

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Ms. OTT: Privately, though, many questioned his death. White was 39 years old and had already four tours of duty in Iraq when he came home for a visit last November with a story that would foreshadow his fate.

Talladega City Councilman Eddie Tucker is part of White's extended family.

Councilman EDDIE TUCKER (Family Member of Stephen White): The last time he was in Iraq, a dud hit his hooch where he was staying, and when they woke up in the morning, they looked up there, and they saw that they had an ordinance that didn't explode. He took that as a sign that it was time for him to get out of the military.

Ms. OTT: Tucker says White planned to retire last fall, but the government denied his retirement request as part of its wartime policy known as stop loss. White's wife Vicky is also in the army, also stationed in Iraq. Family members say she'll be leaving the military.

During his funeral service, Stephen White was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal and an Army Combat Action Badge.

Councilman Tucker also announced that Talladega 17th Street will be renamed Stephen White Memorial Drive. Not exactly how White planned to leave his legacy on Talladega. Tucker says Stephen White had planned to run for mayor after retiring, following in the steps of his father, a long-time county commissioner and leader in the civil rights movement in Talladega.

For NPR News, I'm Tanya Ott.

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