Nebraska Paratrooper Among Fallen in Iraq

Lt. Kevin Gaspers, 26, a native of Hastings, Neb., was killed April 23 by a suicide bomber in Iraq. The quiet, well-mannered student and athlete mentored young cadets in his college ROTC program. He helped his father build houses, loved watching Top Gun, and dreamed of being a paratrooper since elementary school. From Nebraska Public Radio, Avishay Artsy reports.

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The Sunni group, the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack last week that killed nine Americans from the 82nd Airborne Division. One of those nine was Army Lieutenant Kevin Gaspers. Gaspers was from a small Nebraska town and had dreamed of being a paratrooper for most of his life.

From Nebraska Public Radio, Avishay Artsy reports.

(Soundbite of running train)

AVISHAY ARTSY: About every half hour, a train passes close by the childhood home of Kevin Gaspers. His family lives in the central Nebraska town of Hastings in a two-storey, white brick house that Gaspers' help build with his father, John. When Kevin Gaspers wasn't in school or playing sports, his dad was teaching him how to build houses.

Mr. JOHN GASPERS (Kevin Gaspers' father): I was trying to tell him be careful, you know, watch it up there in the roof. And if it was too steep, you know, just tell me. And, you know, you can tell him be careful over there but it doesn't make any difference, you know, because you can't hide from suicide bombs. We cannot, you can't hide from that.

ARTSY: Gaspers was killed last week when a suicide bomber detonated a truck filled with explosives next to his base in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. Eight other members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division also died in the attack. Gaspers was 26 years old. His mother, Pam, says he talked about flying in helicopters or fighter jets since he was a young boy.

Ms. PAM GASPERS (Kevin Gaspers' mother): He loved being a paratrooper.

Mr. GASPERS: Yeah.

Ms. GASPERS: He loved jumping from planes. That was his goal.

ARTSY: The Gaspers family doesn't have much of a military background so they figured Kevin's passion came from watching action movies. He loved anything with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Those who knew Gaspers say he shared the quiet confidence of the characters played by those Western film stars. Randy Ahrens coached Gaspers' high school football team. He said Gaspers' determination as a linebacker won him an outstanding athlete award his senior year.

Mr. RANDY AHRENS (Football Coach): He was just a very, you know, hardworking kid. And, you know, bumps and bruises and scrapes and scratches didn't affect him. And he was right back at it every time.

ARTSY: In the ROTC program at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, Kevin Gaspers was a mentor to younger cadets. Later, he used those leadership skills to train Iraqi police officers. His 23-year-old sister, Katie, goes online to find a short military video produced in Balad Ruz, a small village in Diyala province.

Ms. KATIE GASPERS (Kevin Gaspers' sister): What we are going to watch is a tape of when Kevin was in Iraq and he went on a mission.

(Soundbite of video)

Lieutenant KEVIN GASPERS (U.S. Army): We went out with the Iraqi police today and trying to get the local nationals to, kind of, open up a little bit more to us. And they're very hesitant to talk to any coalition forces.

ARTSY: Kevin Gaspers rarely expressed these frustrations to his family. He came home on leave in early April and his sister, Katie, says it was clear that the war weighed heavily on her brother's mind.

Ms. K. GASPERS: I think he knew, kind of, what he was going back into and how bad it was there. But the person he was, he will never let us know that.

ARTSY: He was killed two weeks after returning to Iraq. His parents were at a track meet for their 15-year-old daughter and didn't see the news that night. But the next morning, they saw two soldiers walking toward their front door. Pam Gaspers began screaming.

Mr. J. GASPERS: They only walk up to your driveway for one reason.

Ms. P. GASPERS: Otherwise, you'll get a phone call.

Mr. J. GASPERS: Otherwise, you get a phone call.

ARTSY: Kevin Gaspers' remains will arrive in Hastings tomorrow and he'll be buried Friday with full military honors.

For NPR News, I'm Avishay Artsy in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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