Haslet embraces family grieving for Army sergeant killed in Afghanistan

Posted Thursday, Sep. 26, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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A red-bordered flag with two blue stars hangs beside an American flag on the home of Beth and Jim Funk.

The stars represent two of the Funks’ children: Army Sgt. Jay Strickland, 23, and his half-brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Caleb Nicholson, 20.

One of those stars soon will be changed to gold: Sgt. Strickland was killed Saturday in Afghanistan.

“The Blue Star Moms are going to alter the banner, replacing one blue star with a gold one,” Beth Funk said Thursday. “The Gold Star Moms called and promised to help me get through this.”

Since World War I, service banners with blue stars have declared that members of the families that fly them are away, fighting for their country. Each gold star tells the world that someone in the family has died in combat.

Sgt. Strickland left a wife, Heather Strickland, and three children — Maddie Neal, 5, Landon Neal, 7, and Victoria Strickland, 2 — who live in Seattle.

A California native, Sgt. Strickland lived in Fort Worth from 1997 to 2005. He attended Fossil Hill Middle School and Hillwood Middle School and was a freshman at Haltom High School before the family moved to Georgia.

Deployed in April, Sgt. Strickland was serving with the Army’s Group Support Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group, in Gardez, in the Paktia Province of eastern Afghanistan, Jim Funk said. It was his first deployment.

“He was about three weeks from coming home,” Funk said.

The Funks were told that Sgt. Strickland was training Afghan soldiers Saturday at a gun range when one of the trainees shot him and two other U.S. soldiers.

The shooter “was immediately killed by the other Afghan soldiers,” Jim Funk said.

The Defense Department confirmed Tuesday that Sgt. Strickland was one of three soldiers killed Saturday at Forward Operating Base Shank in Afghanistan when “enemy forces attacked their unit conducting range training in Garez, Paktai Province.” Staff Sgt. Liam Nevins, 32, of Denver, and Staff Sgt. Timothy McGill, 30, of Ramsey, N.J., were also killed.

The Associated Press reported that the three men were killed by an Afghan wearing a security forces uniform. The New York Times reported that other Afghan security forces killed the attacker, quoting Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

Nicholson, who returned in October from deployment in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, said his brother was doing what he wanted to do. Nicholson recalled hanging out with him the last time they were together, in November.

“My brother was charming, always smiling and the life of the party,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson has been temporarily assigned to North Texas from his duty station in Twenty-nine Palms, Calif., so that he can be with his family and escort his brother’s body when it is released by the Army. It was Beth Funk’s post on the Sendera Ranch Facebook page, looking for a bed to accommodate Nicholson, that alerted the neighbors to Sgt. Strickland’s death.

Neighbors rally

When the neighbors found out Wednesday about Sgt. Strickland’s death, the response was instantaneous. They put hundreds of U.S. flags along the streets leading from Avondale Haslet Road to the family’s home on Rio Bravo Drive.

For several blocks on Sendera Ranch Road, up Diamondback Lane to Esperanza Drive and finally onto Rio Bravo, full-size flags fly from poles thrust into the ground, and smaller ones flap on plastic rods affixed to fences and mailboxes. In several spots along the way, bows made from red, white and blue ribbons are tied to sign posts. Yellow ribbons dot the neighborhood as well.

“This outpouring of love is nothing short of a gift from God,” Beth Funk said.

Family friend B.J. Cox said that the local Optimist Club donated the flags, and several neighbors went to area craft stores, which gave them discounts on the ribbons. He said he couldn’t be more proud to be a Sendera Ranch resident.

“Within six hours, everything was organized and people were putting out the flags and ribbons,” Cox said. “We started about 7 p.m. and finished about 7:45. People showed up again after 9 p.m. to be there when the Funks came through after picking up Caleb at the airport.”

“It truly took our breath away,” Beth Funk said. “As we got to the ballfield on Sendera Ranch, we saw all the people lining the streets, waving flags, cars with their lights on, firetrucks and firefighters standing at attention and saluting.”

When she saw children running along the roads with flags, Beth Funk said she was reminded of Sgt. Strickland when he was younger.

“They would have been chasing Jay down the street,” she said. “He was like the Pied Piper. Kids just flocked to him.”

Jim Funk said that his fellow Hewlett-Packard employees and his wife’s co-workers at Sabre “have been phenomenal with financial and emotional support, helping with travel arrangements, food.”

Indeed, a pair of Sabre co-workers showed up Thursday afternoon to deliver a freezer that the company donated to hold the food that people have been bringing to the family.

At the home in Haslet, the family includes Garret Funk, 14, and Delaynie Funk, 5. Sgt. Strickland’s twin brother, Andrew Strickland, is in Seattle, Wash., helping Heather Strickland make arrangements for her husband’s service and burial.

The burial will be in Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, Wash., but that’s about the only detail that’s settled in confusing circumstances that were set in motion Saturday.

“This has been the most surreal process I’ve ever been in,” Jim Funk said. “It still seems like a movie.”

Terry Evans, 817-390-7620 Twitter: @fwstevans

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