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Seek always to do some good, somewhere. Every man has to seek in his own way to realize his true worth. You must give some time to your fellow man. Even if it’s a little thing, do something for those who need help, something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it. For remember, you don’t live in a world all your own. Your brothers are here, too.

- Albert Schweitzer

The above, a favorite quotation that hung on the office wall of trauma surgeon Major John P. Pryor, certainly applies to all of the men remembered here tonight, as well as to their comrades. Please join me below in paying tribute to four men who died recently in Iraq - three on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas Day:

Staff Sgt. Christopher G. Smith, 28, of Grand Rapids, Mich.
Spc. Stephen M. Okray, 21, of St. Clair Shores, Mich.
Spc. Stephen G. Zapasnik, 19, of Broken Arrow, Okla.
Maj. John P. Pryor, 42, of Moorestown, N.J.

On December 26 the Department of Defense announced the death of three soldiers in Iraq:

They died Dec. 24 in Baghdad, of injuries sustained during a vehicle roll-over. The soldiers were assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo. Killed were:

Staff Sgt. Christopher G. Smith, 28, of Grand Rapids, Mich.
Spc. Stephen M. Okray, 21, of St. Clair Shores, Mich.
Spc. Stephen G. Zapasnik, 19, of Broken Arrow, Okla.

The incident is under investigation.

From jilikins, a friend of the Okray family, we’ve learned that four Humvees were crossing rough terrain across a tricky road in Baghdad. They were on their return from a mission, Jeff Okray, Stephen brother, said. The fourth vehicle, in which Christopher Smith, Stephen Okray, and Stephen Zapasnik were traveling, was crossing the road when it suddenly gave way and startled to crumble. The Humvee slid down the side of the road into a ravine that held six feet of water. All the other soldiers quickly attempted a rescue, but as jilikins reports, it’s hard to break into a vehicle made with bulletproof glass and designed to be impenetrable but not waterproof. By the time they did get the men out several minutes later, it was too late. They had already drowned.

CHRISTOPHER G. SMITH: "He really lived for his family"


Christopher Smith was an outdoorsman who loved golf and hunting. He was also a family man who leaves behind a wife and a fifteen-month-old son.

His wife, who flew from their home near the Fort Carson, Colo., base they were stationed at to join his parents in Michigan, said her husband was an entertainer who loved to hold parties and grill up fare like briskets and ribs. "He really lived for his family. He was that kind of guy," Bobbi Jo said of her husband.

He joined the army in 2001 and had been previously deployed in Iraq from March 2005 to February 2006. His second deployment began in September 2008. A cannon crew member with the Bravo Battery, 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, he had received eleven medals and awards, including the Army Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters and the Army Achievement Medal with two oak leaf clusters.

The family has requested time alone. A guestbook of condolences is here.

May he rest in peace.

***

STEPHEN M. OKRAY: "He died doing what he loved"

Stephen M Okray

The son of Harry and Mary Beth Okray, Stephen Okray grew up in Harper Woods and St. Clair Shores, Michigan, and liked to spend time with his extended family, which included aunts, uncles, and cousins. "He was a good kid. Growing up, he had a big heart," said his uncle Dan Okray. "He walked in the room and it glowed."

An aunt, Denise Okray, recalled, "When someone was worried or felt like there was a problem, he was like, 'Shrug it off; it's OK.' ... He was always family-oriented. He was always good with his cousins." She remembered her nephew as "a happy-go-lucky kid who loved to hunt and fish." Others mentioned that he enjoyed cars and motorcycles and going on camping trips with his brother and father to bow-hunt during deer season.

Mary Beth Okray noted that her son was known for his "wonderful heart and a capacity for giving and sharing": "He was fun, he was funny and had a wonderful, illuminating smile." And his brother, Jeffrey Okray, said: "He was your best buddy, he made everybody laugh."

A graduate of South Lake High School in St. Clair Shores, Okray enlisted in the army in 2005. He spent more than two years in Korea before going to Iraq in September, his brother said. Stephen had already reenlisted for another four-year term. "He loved what he was doing over there," his brother said. "He wanted to serve our country." Jeffrey Okray also noted, "We're not a big military family and no one was pushing him to do it. He had something in him that he wanted to do it."

During his service Okray received seven medals and awards. Dan Okray thought that his nephew wanted to make military service a career. And Mary Beth Okray wrote of her son in an e-mail:

Our Steve loved the military, our country and was very proud to serve. He died doing what he loved and always strived to be better so that anyone who was with him knew that they were safe, as Steve had their back.

Stephen M Okray thumbnailOkray had recently spent time with family and friends during a two-week leave around Thanksgiving. His family received the news of his death on Christmas Eve. When Jeff Okray met with a group of his brother's friends the night after Christmas, "there were a lot highs and lows," he said. "After everybody's eyes dried, there were numerous stories about him and lots of laughter. He would've wanted it that way."

Stephen Okray never wavered in his conviction that being in Iraq "was the right thing," his mother said. "He died doing what he loved, and not all of us can say that."

A video of a local news report with family photos and a cousin's remembrances of Stephen Okray is here.

May he rest in peace.

***

STEPHEN G. ZAPASNIK: "If I don't, who else will?"

Stephen G Zapasnik thumbnail

Leaving high school a year early to join the army, Stephen Zapasnik enlisted at age seventeen and "wanted to go to Iraq more than anything." His mother, Chris Zapasnik, recalled, "He just said, 'Mom, I need to go over there and take care of things, because if I don't, who else will?'" His family remembered him as a jokester but said that he "spoke proudly of his duty to the Army and God."

Stephen G ZapasnikZapasnik had been in Iraq since October 5 and was due home on January 15 for a mid-deployment leave. He could have returned earlier, however, due to the health of his ailing father, Gary Zapasnik. His mother said, "I was afraid if I did [have him come home] that I would wreck his rhythm over there and cause him to get hurt." She also stated that Zapasnik loved the military and the other soldiers in his unit. He told her, "Mom, if I ever don't come back, you know I will always be with you, and I will be with Jesus, and I will be fine."

In addition to his parents, Zapasnik is survived by his sister, Ashley, and Chris Hamil, who has lived with the Zapasniks for several years and whom Stephen considered a brother.

At the family's request, the Patriot Guard Riders will stand the flag line in honor of Stephen Zapasnik, provide an escort from the Tulsa airport, and participate in the memorial service in Broken Arrow on January 2 and the burial service at Arlington National Cemetery on January 6.

Among many other condolences and messages posted at legacy.com is this one from Zapasnik's mother:

I just want to thank you all so much for your prayers and kind words. Stephen would be amazed at the outpouring of love and sympathy we are receiving from everyone, and we are so grateful that so many care and share our grief. My heart is broken into so many pieces at this time, it is hard to imagine ever coming out the other side of this tunnel of grief, but I am at the same time so proud of my son and what he accomplished as a member of the military family. I would not take back the man he had become or the hero he will always be for anything, even if I could have him beside me again. He was an astounding young man and he will live forever in my heart and soul.

Thank you all again, may god be with you all.

Chris. Proud army mom.

May he rest in peace.

***

On December 26 the Department of Defense also announced the death of another soldier in Iraq:

Maj. John P. Pryor, 42, of Moorestown, N.J., died Dec. 25 in Mosul of wounds suffered when a mortar round impacted near his living quarters.  He was assigned to the 1st Medical Detachment, Forward Surgical Team, Fort Totten, N.Y. The incident is under investigation.

JOHN P. PRYOR: "He was compelled to help people"

John P Pryor

Born in Mount Vernon, New York, John P. Pryor was raised in Albany. He belonged to the Boy Scouts, and according to the obituary he  wrote himself and left with his family, "he was certified in CPR when he was 14 years old, joined the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Ambulance Corps at 17, and became a N.Y. State Emergency Medical Technician at 18." He graduated from Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park in 1984, majored in biochemistry at the State University of New York at Binghamton, worked as director of the Albany Medical Center, and then finished medical school at the State University of New York in Buffalo in 1994. He joined the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) in 1999 and, after a fellowship in trauma surgery and critical care, quickly rose to become the director of the hospital's nationally recognized trauma program. He served as chief medical adviser to the Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania, conducting disaster-relief training for volunteers; contributed opinion articles to the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Washington Post; and was often interviewed by NPR and ABC News.

On September 11, 2001, Pryor rushed to Ground Zero, where he and another doctor managed to save two Port Authority officers who were trapped in debris. Pryor joined the Army Reserve Medical Corps soon afterward, at age 39, despite his family's misgivings. He went to Iraq for the first time in 2006, serving with the 344th Combat Support Hospital in Abu Ghraib. Another trauma surgeon who asked him why he'd joined recalled, "He said he didn't know how he could sit here, eating a hamburger and drinking a beer, when there were kids over there being shot, and he could help them."

Preparing for the worst, Pryor wrote about himself in the third person in the document he left behind, compiled a CD of funeral music, and picked out a casket before he deployed. In the document, he stated that he "felt very strongly about his duty to serve, especially during wartime":

His decision was not supported by those close to him, and it was emotionally very challenging to balance his dedication to his duty and hurting those he loved. He hopes and prays for forgiveness from his family and colleagues.

Between deployments, Pryor often spoke and wrote about similarities between violence in Iraq and Philadelphia. In a Washington Post editorial titled "The War in West Philadelphia," he wrote: "In Iraq, soldiers die for freedom, for honor, for their country and for their buddies. Here in Philadelphia, they die without honor, without purpose, for no country, for no one."

Pryor began his second tour of duty in Iraq on December 6 and was due to come home in April. His brother, Richard Pryor, who is also an emergency physician, said that a single mortar round was apparently blindly fired at the Mosul Air Base and landed in a trailer where his brother was sleeping, soon after he had returned from Christmas midnight mass.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, "both Philadelphia and Iraq lost a widely admired doctor who treated his career as a calling and was devoted to helping people, regardless of their race, ethnicity or social status." His brother said, "He was compelled to help people. I think he did as much as he could."

A sampling of postings from his legacy.com guestbook:

Dr. Pryor was an amazing individual who inspired many of the students at the University of Pennsylvania. He never forgot where he came from and still took the time to give lectures to EMT's and other health care providers whenever he could.
#
I am honoured to have known this great man. He taught us how to live for a cause, a cause he fought for his entire life, to help the helpless in a selfless manner. He was a great surgeon, a great teacher and above all a great human being.
#
I had the honor to work and know Maj. Pryor from our deployment at Abu Ghraib. He was a great mentor and I am now in medical school following in his steps. He taught me not only what a great physician can be but also how to be a great human being.
#
It was an honor to have worked with him in Abu Ghraib. He was the greatest, most professional surgeon I have worked with in my entire life. He was amazed how we the nurses handled all the cases coming into the ETR at Abu, but we were amazed of his skills and compassion for people.
#
John was an essential person in our society. He was inspired to be a force for good and inspired others toward the same goal. He was sensitive and eager to teach and to learn. My grief is personal because I taught him when he was a resident at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He was kind enough to say to me years later that my influence as his attending was what led to his decision to become a trauma surgeon. I have always considered this to be the highest honor that anyone could give me. I can't imagine the loss to his family. The loss is greater given the goodness of the man.

And from the president of the National Collegiate EMS Foundation:

His passion for the field of trauma and the care of his patients provided an inspiration to many of our members to pursue medicine and to always strive to make a difference. He always was willing to provide career advice and guidance. The impact that he has left through his interactions with undergraduate students is immeasurable. He was an outstanding role model, a gifted teacher, and a talented surgeon.

A list of John Pryor's publications is here and a list of his faculty, hospital, and administrative appointments is here.

In addition to his brother, Pryor is survived by his wife, Carmela V. Calvo, a pediatrician; his daughter, Danielle, 10, and sons Frank, 8, and John, 4; and his parents, Richard C. and Victoria Pryor.

May he rest in peace.

***


Please bear in mind that these diaries are read by friends and families of the service members chronicled here. May all of our remembrances be full of compassion rather than politics.


If you want to do something to assist our military and their families, please visit anysoldier.com or Fisher House. If you have frequent flyer miles you would like to donate to hospitalized veterans or their families, see Fisher House's Hero Miles program. If you would like to assist the animal companions of our deployed military, information is available here. Sending a care package to a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan is; read how at anysoldier.com. Other ways to support the troops are in this diary. And don't forget them when they get home. Visit welcomebackveterans.org and Hire Heroes USA to learn what you can do.


As of this writing, 4,216 members of the U.S. armed services have been confirmed killed in action in Iraq, three are pending confirmation, and one is missing or captured; 316 other coalition forces have died. In Afghanistan, 630 U.S. forces and 412 other coalition forces have died. (The Department of Defense news releases can be found here.) More than 30,600 U.S. servicemen and women have been wounded in Iraq, and the suicide rate among servicemen and women is high. The death toll among Iraqis is unknown, but is at least more than 90,000 and probably is in the hundreds of thousands. At least 153 journalists have been killed in Iraq during the war.


I Got the News Today is a diary series intended to honor service members who have died as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; its title is a reminder that almost every day a military family gets the terrible news about a loved one. The series, which was begun by i dunno, is currently maintained by Sandy on Signal, monkeybiz, noweasels, MsWings, greenies, blue jersey mom, Chacounne, twilight falling, moneysmith, labwitchy, joyful, SisTwo, a girl in MI, SpamNunn, JeNoCo, mediaprof, Pager, and me, roses. These diaries are heartbreaking to write, but, we believe, an important service to those Americans who have died, and to our community’s respect for and remembrance of them. If you would like to volunteer, even once a month, please contact Sandy on Signal, monkeybiz, or noweasels.

Originally posted to roses on Mon Dec 29, 2008 at 07:26 PM PST.

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