Schofield soldier Phillip Witkowski, 24, who died Saturday from injuries suffered in Afghanistan, is shown in this recent photo with wife Tina and sons Kaleb and Kyle.

Schofield soldier
killed in week 1
of Afghan duty

Spc. Phillip Witkowski is
remembered for being a "jokester"

Army Spc. Phillip Witkowski had been in Afghanistan just a week when he became the 25th Infantry Division's first fatality there while mounting a machine gun on a Humvee.

Friends described the Army cook as "open-hearted," a "jokester" who was proud to be serving in Afghanistan. His mother called him "the Pied Piper."

Family friend Carolyn Jenkins said yesterday that she last saw Witkowski April 21 at Schofield Barracks "before he got on the bus to go to the airport.

"I gave him a big hug and told him I would see him in a year," Jenkins said. "The whole idea of him not coming back was never in my mind."

"Phil was 24 years old," she added. "He would have been 25 in two weeks."

Meanwhile, the death toll for island-based Schofield Barracks soldiers stationed in Iraq continued to mount with three killed over the weekend. As of last night, five 25th Infantry Division soldiers have died in Iraq since January.

The Pentagon said last night that Staff Sgt. Oscar D. Vargas-Medina, 32, of Chicago, and Spc. Ramon C. Ojeda, 22, of Ramona, Calif., were killed about 7 p.m. Saturday south of Al Amarah in southern Iraq when their convoy was attacked. Both soldiers were assigned to the 84th Engineer Battalion.

The two Tropic Lightning soldiers were killed and six others were wounded when their convoy was attacked by rocket-propelled grenades and small arms. The wounded were transported to nearby military medical facilities.

On Sunday morning another Schofield Barracks soldier was killed and 10 wounded during a suspected explosive-device attack and exchange of small-arms fire near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

The name of the soldier killed is being withheld pending notification of next of kin. Including Sunday's fatality, 11 people with Hawaii ties have died in Iraq since the war began last year. One was a civilian.

There are more than 5,000 Schofield soldiers in Afghanistan and 4,500 in Iraq on year-long deployments.

The Pentagon said yesterday that Witkowski, of Fredonia, N.Y., died Saturday from an abdominal injury in Homberg, Germany, from non-combat-related injuries sustained Friday in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Witkowski was undergoing emergency surgery in a German hospital when he died.

He was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division's 7th Field Artillery and had been in Afghanistan for a week.

Witkowski was undergoing emergency surgery in a German hospital when he died.

His wife, Tina, said the Army told her that her husband was loading his M-249 squad machine gun on his Humvee when it went off and that the accident is under investigation.

The couple was married for four years and has two sons: Kaleb who is 3; and Kyle, 3 months.

Tina Witkowski said she talked with her husband the day before the accident.

"He said he was enjoying the experience," she said. "He had been out on patrol. He thought it was an awesome experience, and proud that he was there. He sounded really happy."

The couple met through a mutual friend four years ago when Witkowski was stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash. Witkowski enlisted in August 1998, two months after his high school graduation. He worked as an Army cook, first at Fort Lewis, then at Schofield Barracks, where he was sent in February 2003.

Funeral services will be held in Tacoma, Wash., and Witkowski will be buried with full military honors in a military cemetery in Kent. He had been in the Army for five years.

Jenkins said Tina Witkowski lived in Aliamanu when her father was stationed here for two years with the Navy. She said Tina Witkowski left Moanalua High School in the ninth grade when her father was transferred.

The family lived at Schofield Barracks, where Phillip Witkowski was assigned two years ago, but his wife and their two sons moved to Gig Harbor outside Seattle the day before he was sent to Afghanistan for a year.

"He was a very open-hearted, lovable guy," Jenkins said. "He had no problem making friends. He was the jokester in our group.

"He loved to work on his car."

His widow added: "He never took anything seriously. He really just loved to laugh."

Witkowski's death "was kind of like a punch in the stomach to the teachers who had him in class," Fredonia High School Principal Todd Crandall told the Associated Press. "He was a truly special young man."

Witkowski and his children returned last month to Dunkirk in upstate New York to visit with family before going overseas.

During his visit he gave his family no hint that he was heading into a dangerous area.

"To tell you the truth, I don't think he wanted us to think it was a big deal," his older brother, Christopher Witkowski, said. "He didn't show any fear. He was happy and proud to serve the Army over there."


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