HIT, Iraq -- U.S. soldiers serving in this city of 30,000 in Iraq’s Al Anbar province memorialized the second U.S. soldier killed in action here since February.
Hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers gathered at one of the U.S. military’s forward operating bases in the city to memorialize Spc. Michael J. Potocki, a 21-year-old native of Baltimore, Md., and 2003 graduate of Patterson Senior High School in Baltimore.
Potocki, who spent six months in Iraq during 2004, was part of the Friedburg, Germany-based 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment – the U.S. Army unit assigned to provide security in this mostly Sunni city, located about 70 miles northwest of Ramadi.
The battalion suffered the death of Pfc. Jeremy Wayne Ehle, a 19-year-old from Alexandria, Va., who died April 2 as a result of a wound received during combat operations.
Potocki, an infantryman with the battalion’s Alpha Company, nicknamed “Team Raider,” was shot during combat operations in Hit June 26, and died in a medical facility at the U.S. military base in Al Asad.
“He was a new breed of infantry soldier, but more importantly, he was a helluva person,” said Potocki’s team leader, Cpl. William McCoy, during the ceremony. “He is what I would want another country to see an American as.”
Surrounded by heavily-armored, Bradley fighting vehicles, soldiers from Potocki’s unit took turns speaking about him to the hundreds present.
Most recalled a man who could make others laugh, and never complained about serving in Iraq.
“He was a competent infantryman. Physically fit, he was a sniper, he followed all orders without complaint,” said Capt. Christopher Kuzio, Alpha Company commanding officer “And he never failed his fellow soldiers.”
“Always ready for anything, he never complained nor gave anything but his very best all the time,” said Potocki’s platoon commander, 1st. Lt. Breg Hughes. “He was as competent a soldier as any man could ever ask for and likely the best all-around soldier in the platoon.”
Kuzio told a story which he said was indicative of Potocki’s strong character as both a man and a U.S. soldier. Before deployment, Potocki and another soldier were in Kuzio’s office to receive punishment after they “got into some trouble.”
“I was prepared for all kinds of excuses, all sorts of reasons of how it wasn’t their fault,” said Kuzio. “When I asked Spc. Potocki, ‘What happened?’ his response shocked me. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Sir, I’m responsible. The other soldier wasn’t involved. It was me, and I accept whatever punishment you think is appropriate.’ All this from a brand new 19-year-old soldier. I was impressed.”
Potocki’s memory was represented in true military fashion during the 30-minute ceremony: a Kevlar helmet set atop a rifle, stuck bayonet-first into a wooden pedestal and adorned with Potocki’s dog tags; combat boots, a folded American flag. Potocki’s portrait was set at the base of the pedestal.
His military awards and decorations, including a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, were set atop the pedestal.
“He was a great warrior who gave it his all to accomplish the mission,” said Lt. Col. Thomas C. Graves, the battalion’s commanding officer. “No words spoken today will ever return him to our formation. Our only hope is that we can live up to the example he set and the sacrifice he displayed.”
During the ceremony, rifles were fired in unison in Potocki’s memory, crisp salutes were given during the playing of taps, and the company’s senior enlisted man, 1st. Sgt. Flynn Broady gave the final company roll call. As calling the company to attention, Broady called of the names of several soldiers.
Each responded with a “Here, first sergeant.” Then he called for Potocki. Each time he called for the fallen soldier, Broady was answered only by silence.
“Specialist Michael Potocki!”
“Specialist Michael Joseph Potocki!”
With temperatures well-above 100 degrees in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, Potocki’s unit is responsible for conducting daily security patrols through the city, wearing 60-plus pounds of protective military gear. The soldiers spend their days patrolling the city’s streets, often accompanied by Iraqi soldiers, and face small-arms fire and improvised explosive devices almost daily.
Still, Potocki never complained, said Spc. Andrew Goodman, who knew Potocki for three years and said he and Potocki were best friends.
“Before June 26, I thought we fought for our country and our flag. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Goodman. “I realize that we only fight for each other. Each other’s all we have.”
Following the ceremony, the soldiers waited in line to pay final respects to Potocki’s memorial. Some simply stared at the memorial; others gave the sign of the cross and touched the boots or dog tags.
“Good-bye, Spc. Potocki. We’ll see you again on the high ground,” said Kuzio.
Email Staff Sgt. Goodwin at: firstname.lastname@example.org.