The fallen

Thus far, the two-front “war on terror” has claimed the lives of 4,865 U.S. military personnel. One hundred nineteen of them hailed from North Carolina, and six of those called Western North Carolina home. Below are details about our area’s service members who’ve perished in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sgt. William S. Kinzer Jr., Hendersonville: Kinzer, 27, served as a cavalry scout, Humvee driver and gunner in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division. He was killed Jan. 26, 2005, by a rocket-propelled grenade while patrolling in Duluiyah, Iraq.

A graduate of Fletcher Academy, where he was on the gymnastics team, Kinzer enlisted in March 2001.

“He was the type of person who was always there to lend a hand” and “a person you could count on in battle and never worry if he had your back, ” a soldier from his unit told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

Kinzer died mere weeks before the end of his deployment to Iraq. He’d planned to marry his fiancée, Melissa Milks, in Hendersonville a few weeks after his return.

Sgt. Kevin D. Akins, Burnsville: Akins, 29, was a grocery-store manager in civilian life and an Army reservist with the Asheville-based 391st Engineer Battalion. He was killed March 12, 2006, by an improvised explosive device that tore through his Humvee during an operation near Asadabad, Afghanistan.

Akins deployed to Iraq in 2003 and to Afghanistan in February 2005. Shortly after he died, military officials sent a letter to his parents that said, in part: “Sgt. Akins had a legendary work ethic. No one outworked—now this is his nickname—‘Big Ake.’ He led by example. A natural leader that soldiers desire to follow. And follow him they did.”

Three other soldiers died in the attack, including one of Akins’ best friends, Staff Sgt. Joe Ray of Candler (see next entry).

Staff Sgt. Joe Ray, Candler: Ray, 29, also with the Army Reserve’s 391st Engineer Battalion, died in the same attack as Akins. A former maintenance employee in the Buncombe County Detention Center, he joined the Reserve in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In October 2008, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners dedicated a bronze plaque memorializing Ray at the Detention Center. Perhaps the most poignant tributes came from his immediate family members: In 2004, Ray had married a widow with a young son, whom he adopted. “I just miss him every day,” the boy, Desmond, said at the reservist’s funeral. “I love him. He was the only one like my daddy.”

Ray’s wife, Annastasia, spoke at the funeral as well. “I never knew I could be loved the way Joe Ray loved me, so completely and so true,” she said. “I just want to say, now and forever, I love this man.”

Cpl. Kenneth D. Hess, Asheville: Hess, 26, served in the Army’s 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. He was killed by a suicide bomber during a patrol in Rawah, Iraq, April 11, 2006.

Hess, who attended A.C. Reynolds High School, told relatives he planned to serve in the military for the rest of his career. “He was so proud to be a soldier and wear that uniform and serve his country,” his father, Terry Hess, told the News & Observer of Raleigh.

His mother, Kathy Blackwell, got a call from Hess the day before he died. According to the N & O, “He told her that soldiering in Rawah was probably the most stressful job he had had and cheerfully said that he would be home in ‘just 16 more weeks.’”

Staff Sgt. Charlie L. Bagwell, Lake Toxaway: Bagwell, 28, was deployed with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division when his helicopter was shot down May 30, 2007, in Afghanistan’s Upper Sangin Valley.

In 1997, Bagwell’s senior year at Rosman High School, classmates voted him “most athletic.” After graduating, he worked a stint as a carpenter and then joined the Army, serving as a mechanic and crew chief. In 2005, he served in Iraq before deploying to Afghanistan.

“He was liked by everyone who knew him,” said Dave Cox, chief warrant officer in Bagwell’s battalion. “You couldn’t help but like Charlie. He was just one of those people you rarely meet that leave a lasting impression on you.”

Lance Cpl. Jessie A. Cassada, Hendersonville: Cassada, 19, deployed to Afghanistan as an infantryman with the II Marine Expeditionary Force in November 2008; he died Jan. 6, 2009, while fighting in Helmand province.

A 2007 graduate of East Henderson High School, Cassada “was outgoing; he loved fishing and loved his family—he loved everyone,” his mother, Patricia Cassada, told the Associated Press. “He didn’t have a bad bone in his body.”

“He would give his right arm for anyone,” said Todd Garren, a friend of the fallen marine.

Shortly before his death, Cassada posted a message online on his Facebook page: “I MISS USA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”


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About Jon Elliston
Former Mountain Xpress managing editor Jon Elliston is the senior editor at WNC magazine.

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