New Hampshire Soldier Found Focus in Army

Friends and family say Justin Rollins was a young man with a ready smile and boundless energy. The Army provided him with discipline. The 22-year-old from Newport, N.H., known to his fellow soldiers as "Ro-Ro," was killed by a roadside bomb.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen. Hundreds braved sleet and snow to attend the funeral of Army Specialist Justin Rollins of Newport, New Hampshire, yesterday. He was an avid Boston Red Sox fan, and team star David Ortiz sent an autographed ball to be placed in the casket. Rollins was killed earlier this month in Iraq by a roadside bomb. Reporter Shannon Mullen visited his hometown and spoke with many there who remember this soldier well.

SHANNON MULLEN: Justin Rollins had the kind of charm as a teenager that could get him out of trouble. Family friend Kathy Hanson, who was also one of Rollins's high school teachers, remembers the night he and his buddies showed up for the Newport High senior prom on golf carts, smoking cigars and zipping around the town common.

Ms. KATHY HANSON (High School Teacher): He, in his boldness, steps off of the golf cart and gives his hand to the girl and they come up - the broad smile, the stogie sticking out of his mouth - so sure of what he was doing and that he could just do it. And I just, you know, kind of looked at him and gave him that look. And you know, he put it out, and he put it aside without any qualms or any - but he just, it was so, so him.

MULLEN: Social studies teacher Bill Thurlow says Rollins was apathetic about academics, but he had strong opinions in class debates, especially on the right to bear arms.

Mr. BILL THURLOW (Social studies teacher): He loved guns and hunting as a hobby. He was very defensive about any kind of position allowing hunting and having Second Amendment rights.

MULLEN: Thurlow says Rollins also voiced his support for the war in Iraq. That was one reason why he joined the Army, a move his teachers say transformed him.

Ms. ELLEN SOUCY (English teacher): So if he had stayed here, he could have worked in some of the fast food places, or he could have gone off to work at the local gun manufacturer, factory work.

MULLEN: Ellen Soucy was Rollins's English teacher. She says the last time he visited her, he'd gone from a pudgy, unfocused teenager to a trim, handsome soldier who'd outgrown being average.

Ms. SOUCY: Sometimes students who are kind of unfocused when they graduate never really find something that they love doing. And Justin was lucky that he took to the military and the military took to him.

MULLEN: Rollins turned down an offer to train as a recruiter so he could go to Iraq, where fellow soldiers called him Ro-Ro. Army Corporal Chris Howe, who Rollins grew up with in Newport, also served with him there. Howe is back home now in treatment for injuries from a mine explosion. He remembers the mission when he was fired on and Rollins went out in the open to shoot back.

Corporal CHRIS HOWE (Army Corporal): He wasn't trying to show off or anything. He was just doing what he was trained to do, which a lot of people over there didn't. A lot of people would hold back if there's a risk of them dying.

MULLEN: Kathy Hanson is trying to focus now on the fact that Rollins chose the Army. But it's hard, she says, when she knows where life could have taken him.

Ms. HANSON: He would have made a great member of this community. He would make a great husband. He would make a great father. And all of that should have happened.

MULLEN: Justin Rollins is to be buried in Arlington Cemetery this week. Not long ago, he told his father he thought there was no greater honor. For NPR News, I'm Shannon Mullen.

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