The last time he was home, he left his dog tags with his father.
Did Stephan Mace somehow sense he wouldn’t be coming back? It was late August, and in spite of grave concerns about the safety of his unit — or maybe because of those concerns — Mace was anxious to get back to help his buddies.
Stationed at a remote Afghanistan outpost near the Pakistan border (see map and photos), the army specialist and his fellow soldiers were all too aware of their vulnerability. Barely a year before in a similarly isolated spot, a four-hour firefight left nine Americans dead and 27 wounded during the battle of Wanat. Plans were reportedly underway to withdraw from Kamdesh as part of a military realignment to concentrate troops in more populated areas.
But Mace and seven of his brothers in arms didn’t live to see that day. On October 3, Combat Outpost Keating was attacked from all sides by insurgents who had built an arsenal in the local mosque. (According to our rules of engagement, mosques are off-limits for weapon checks.)
Although our side — 75 Americans and 25 Afghanis — was outnumbered three to one, they fought valiantly:
One of the commanders in the Keating fight rejected any suggestion that the battle was a defeat and was frustrated that it could appear that way, especially since he estimated that as many as 100 to 150 attackers were killed in the fight.
Lt. Col. Jimmy Blackmon, who commanded the Apache battalion that flew to Keating’s defense, told ABC News, “Knowing that American soldiers fought all day long, heroic valorous actions all day long, and a headline would lead the average person to believe that we may have lost that fight. Unequivocally untrue.”
Read a full account of the battle and the subsequent troop withdrawal at ABC News.
Mace’s flag-draped coffin was flown home on October 11 and met by his grieving mother. She accompanied him on his final flight to a private airport near his home town, where a motorcade was formed to bear his body home.
On that crisp fall Sunday morning, along the 13 miles from Leesburg, but especially in Purcellville, we gathered to pay our respects. The war suddenly seemed so near we could almost hear the shots, smell the smoke, feel the ground shake beneath our feet.
At his funeral, speakers recalled a true native son, remembering Stephan as a child in and out of their homes and their hearts, as a young man who loved adventure, as a committed Christian, and as a dedicated soldier who loved his unit like a “band of brothers.”
A general presented Stephan’s mother with the six medals — including a Bronze Star and Purple Heart — Mace had earned for his heroism in battle. Bagpipes keened “Amazing Grace.” A week later Army Specialist Stephan Lee Mace was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.