Matthew R. Soper

Matthew R. Soper—September 2007 Shipment Honoree

Army Pfc., age 25, of Kalamazoo, Mich., died June 6, 2007 in Bayji, Iraq, of wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device. He was assigned to the 1461st Transportation Company (Combat Heavy Equipment), Michigan Army National Guard, Jackson, Michigan.

Soldier Dies “doing what I love”

Source:  Jackson Citizen Patriot
Michigan Live
By Danielle Quisenberry

Matthew R. SoperIn every e-mail, every call, Sgt. Matthew Soper assured his family in Jackson that he believed in the cause. “He told me—‘If I die there, don’t think I didn’t die doing what I love,'” said Soper’s oldest sister, Amy Ciokajlo.

Soper, 26, of Jackson was killed this week in Iraq, where he was serving with the Michigan Army National Guard’s 1461st Transportation Company, based in Jackson.

Wednesday evening, two men in uniform arrived at his family’s home on S. Webster Street, walking through trees decked with yellow ribbons, to deliver the news that left the tight-knit family numb. “This isn’t supposed to be happening to us,” said Ciokajlo, 36, sitting on her parents’ front porch late Wednesday and dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

In front of her, dozens of family friends were gathered on the dark lawn, holding candles and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. One held a sign that read, “You’re in our prayers. United we stand.”

Soper is the third soldier from Jackson County killed in Iraq and the first to die from the 1461st Transportation Company in two wars. This was his second tour in Iraq.

Just about two years ago, Soper’s family was celebrating his return from the war. He returned home in February 2005 after nearly a year fighting with the 1462nd Transportation Company of Howell. As part of his 2005 homecoming celebration, Soper cut down yellow ribbon around an elm tree in his parents’ yard. “My dad put the yellow ribbon up the day I left for Iraq, and I chopped it down,” Soper told the Citizen Patriot. “I made it.”

After his return, he spent some time in Kalamazoo, taking classes at Kalamazoo Valley Community College until he was called to duty last year. He was among 299 soldiers mobilized in Jackson last June for deployment with the 1461st Transportation Company. It is a truck-driving unit that transports tanks in huge vehicles the Army calls HETs, for heavy equipment transport.

The 1461st is expected to return home in August. “He was just counting down the days until he could come home,” said his aunt, Sandy Cannons of Jackson.

She and the rest of the family last saw Soper—the fifth of Warner and Shirley Soper’s eight children—when he surprised everyone and came home in March to celebrate his grandmother’s 80th birthday. “That was his style—the grand entrance,” Ciokajlo said.

He would walk into a room and “light everyone up,” Cannons said and recalled him dancing in March to “Hillbilly Deluxe,” a country song by Brooks & Dunn.

Sgt. Brian Guenther of Jackson served with Soper in Iraq in Soper’s first tour. Guenther said they did not know each other well—”I was in admin and he was out on the trucks”—but Soper was “a pretty gung-ho guy.”

“He wanted to be there,” Guenther said. “He volunteered to come back again. He was well respected.”

Cannons spoke repeatedly of the pride she takes in her nephew. “I was always proud of him, even when he was naughty.”

As a boy, he made some mistakes, Ciokajlo and Cannons said; one was dropping out of Lumen Christi High School, though he later earned his GED.

But his service in the military changed him, Ciokajlo said. “He’s turned into a great human being. The military really did turn him around.” Soper was considering making a career of the armed services, his sister said. He joined to “call something his own,” she said. He was afraid he had caused disappointment and wanted to do something that would make others proud.

It is clear he did that. “I’ve told him every chance I got how proud of him and how honored I felt to be his sister,” Ciokajlo said. She said he was inspired by the positive things that were happening in Iraq and refused to watch news reports he considered negative. They never showed the good things, he would complain.

Ciokajlo said Soper led caravans while in Iraq, manning the front vehicle gun. “I can’t imagine how many lives he saved,” his sister said.

The 1461st Transportation Company was last deployed for the Gulf War in 1990. Two detachments of soldiers, one including Soper, have served in Iraq with other units.

Soper’s friends home for funeral

Source:  Jackson Citizen Patriot
By Holly Klaft

Matthew R. SoperDerek Eisele and Matthew Soper were inseparable. They had spent nearly every day together since they were classmates at Jackson Catholic Middle School. They joined the Michigan Army National Guard together, fought next to one another on their first tour in Iraq and headed out together with the 1461st Transportation Company for the second.

“We couldn’t get away from each other,” Eisele said. “He was my roommate, my gun partner and my battle buddy. You feel 100 times safer when it’s your best friend protecting your back.”

So when the pair parted ways earlier this year for different
assignments, the separation caused some uneasiness.
It was two months before they would see one another again,
when Soper surprised Eisele by stopping at his base.
“Maybe it was God saying Matt’s got to see you one more time,” Eisele said.

Two weeks later, Soper, 25, was killed when an improvised bomb struck his vehicle. His death devastated friends and relatives who say they’re trying to mend the gaping hole in their lives. Soper’s funeral is at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Lumen Christi High School gymnasium.

Coming home

After learning of their son’s death, Shirley and Warner Soper spent the next week “knocking down doors” to bring his best friends and military family home. They succeeded last week when four, including Eisele, returned to Michigan.

“It’s what Matthew would have wanted, and it’s what we wanted,” Shirley Soper said. “They needed to be here.” The trip home was a relief for Soper’s close friends, who were told they wouldn’t be able to attend the funeral.

“I would have been a wreck if they didn’t let me come home,” said John Phelps, Soper’s longtime friend who is a communications officer in the 1461st. “This is what I needed to do, to come home and be with the people who knew and loved him like I did. I’m so grateful just to make it back so I could say goodbye to my brother.”

Nearly 500 soldiers attended Soper’s memorial service in Iraq, Phelps said. “Everyone knew he was a hero,” he said. “He was always busy looking out for everyone else.”

Battle bonds

During the first week of their tour in Iraq three years ago, Eisele and Soper’s convoy was struck by a bomb while traveling from Kuwait. Eisele said having Soper at his side helped him get through the anxiety.

“Your heart drops, and it races,” Eisele said. “We got that feeling that this is going to happen to us every day. It took awhile to get used to but just having a familiar face and seeing each other, you’d feel more like you were home.”

Eisele was with Soper when he was moved up to the position as gunner. Soper loved it and would volunteer for the dangerous position as lead gunner, eagerly telling friends about the roadside bombs he was able to spot.

“He’d come back and say ‘I found another one. No big deal,'” said Soper’s girlfriend, Alicia Oleksiak, who served with him in the 1461st. “Everyone relied on Matt. They knew when he was up there, nothing was getting by.”

Soper was in a great mood when he left with his convoy the day his vehicle was struck, Oleksiak said. He was set to return home in August and weeks earlier had spent hours discussing plans with Eisele for a raucous welcome-home party.

For Oleksiak, it still doesn’t seem real. “When they told me what happened it felt like my heart was getting ripped out of my chest,” Oleksiak said. “I don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard in my life.”

A somber return

Shirley Soper met her son’s casket Wednesday at Jackson County Airport, greeting him as if he had just stepped off the plane with his company. Some family members didn’t go, knowing it would be too heartbreaking for them to bear. “As a mother it was something I had to do,” she said. “I got to kiss him 100 times. I got to see his face and touch his hands.”

Army officials tell soldiers to write letters to their families in case something should happen to them, but Soper brushed off the idea during his first tour, reassuring everyone he would return home, Warner Soper said.

Before returning to Michigan, Eisele headed to Soper’s barracks to pick up some of his personal items. Stuck under his computer was an envelope addressed to his family in case he didn’t make it home alive.

“I didn’t know he could write like that. It was so beautiful,” Warner Soper said in tears. In the three-page letter Soper thanked his family for everything they’ve done and let them know he would continue to watch out for them.

“It said if we wanted to talk to him, just to look up and I’ll be the first star you see,” Shirley Soper said. “I looked up at the stars for him last night.”

Thousands attend emotional funeral for Soper

Source:  Jackson Citizen Patriot
Michigan Live
By Danielle Quisenberry and Chris Gautz; staff writer Holly Klaft contributed to this story.


Matthew SoperTo honor a soldier many had never met, they came in the thousands. They waved American flags, stood at rigid attention or wiped away tears for a family overcome by loss. About 1,500 people Tuesday crowded into the Lumen Christi Catholic High School gymnasium for Sgt. Matthew Soper’s funeral mass. Hundreds more lined Jackson streets, watching silently, as the hearse carrying Soper’s body made a somber journey to St. John’s Cemetery on E. South Street.

“This man gave his life for our freedom,” said Daniel Barnes of Jackson, a leather-clad biker who did not know Soper but rode in the funeral procession with more than 300 other vehicles. “The very least we can do is show our respect.”

Soper, 25 died June 6, 2007 in Baji, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device hit his patrol vehicle. He was serving his second tour of duty with the Jackson-based Michigan Army National Guard 1461st Transportation Company.

Tuesday, a silent crowd rose to its feet in reverence as his flag-draped coffin was taken through a light rain and into the high school gym. Soper’s weeping family walked slowly behind it.

His seven siblings, their spouses and his parents, Shirley and Warner Soper, filled the front rows of the gym as Father Bernard Reilly, of St. Mary Catholic Church in Jackson, delivered the homily. “(Soper) was unique and had that unique place in the family … and in your hearts,” said Reilly, standing at a podium flanked by red, white and blue flowers.

As he and others spoke, men and women dabbed their eyes with tissues. Soper’s best friend, Sgt. Derek Eisele, shook with emotion when Reilly referred to him and A.J. Curtis as “brothers” to Soper.

Many who had been able to maintain composure broke down as they viewed a slide show of family photos, accompanied by live acoustic guitar versions of popular country music songs, “An American Soldier” and “If You’re Reading This.” Pictures spanning Soper’s life—from a boy with his face smeared with food to a soldier kissing a niece—had men wiping their eyes.

Toward the end of the Mass, Soper’s brother-in-law, Jay Ciokajlo, fought his emotions as he read a poem Soper wrote. Soper’s friends found it in his room in Iraq after he died.

An excerpt: ?”I am that which others do not want to be.?I went where others feared to go.?And did what others failed to do.?I asked for nothing from those who gave nothing …?At least some day I will be able to say that I was proud of what I did and who I am.”

Ciokajlo continued by sharing memories of Soper, who nicknamed himself “Big Slick.”

“He was extreme. He wanted to be extreme in all he did. He did not get lost in a crowd,” Ciokajlo said. He was the “life of the party” and “all that and a bucket of chicken to the ladies,” he said, drawing laughs from Soper’s family. It was a light moment in an otherwise serious ceremony.

More than 100 military personnel attended the funeral, standing at attention as Maj. Gen. Thomas Cutler awarded Soper with the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. The Purple Heart is awarded to soldiers wounded in combat. The Bronze Star honors acts of heroism or meritorious service.

When the 1-hour, 45-minute service ended at about noon, more than 200 cars and trucks and about 100 motorcycles made their way along the five-mile procession to the cemetery for a grave-side service. The family rode in a white recreational vehicle marked with Soper’s name on its side as those along the route stood for what amounted to a silent parade for a soldier everyone called heroic.

Among them was Andrea Beeler of Napoleon, whose brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Brent Beeler, 22, was fatally shot in the chest Dec. 7 while on patrol in Fallujah, Iraq. He was serving with a Lansing-based Marine Corps Reserve company.

“I figured I should be here,” said Beeler, 19. Community support got her family through the rough time after her brother’s death, she said, holding a small flag. “I don’t know what I can do as one person, but I know it helped me.”

About 100 feet away, David Kughn, a 59-year-old Vietnam War veteran, stood on the corner of Jackson Street and Washington Avenue tightly gripping a 5-foot American flag and wearing a red, white and blue polo shirt.

“We wouldn’t be able to stand out here today and do what we want if it wasn’t for them,” Kughn said as procession vehicles approached a 25-by-40 foot American flag, waving about 40 feet above Washington Avenue.

The enormous patriotic symbol was strung up near Mechanic Street by Blackman and Spring Arbor township fire department ladder trucks to honor Soper. The flag was loaned to Blackman by the Hot Air Jubilee.

All the support was “wonderful,” said Soper’s aunt, Sandy Cannons of Jackson. “It just touched the hearts … I know it meant the world to Shirley and Warner and the kids.”

Master Sgt. Bill Bain said in 20 years of military service he has never seen such an outpouring of support. “I was really amazed how this community stepped up.” Bain served with Soper when he toured Iraq in 2004 and 2005 with the National Guard 1462nd Transportation Company, based in Howell.

It always hurts when a soldier dies, he said, his face showing obvious signs of expelled tears. “But he was one of our own … He was one of the best.”

Tough but gentle is how community remembers Matthew

Source:  Jackson Citizen Patriot
Michigan Live
By Holly Klaft

Matthew Soper was “one of the toughest kids you’d ever meet.” The rough-and-tumble 26 year old volunteered to go to Iraq and take on the dangerous position of lead gunner in the Michigan Army Guard’s 1461st Transportation Company.

He was such an aggressive athlete in high school, football coaches moved him up to the varsity team in his sophomore year. “He was a risk-taker,” said Herb Brogan, head football coach for Lumen Christi High School. “He was always challenging the limits, and he had that enthusiasm.”

Family, friends and Jackson residents mourned the loss of the devoted soldier, who they said always gave 100 percent to serving his country. “He loved the Army,” said Soper’s godmother Karen Manser. “It really meant something to him to fight for his country.”

Soper loved Lumen Christi football and showed his pride for the military by wearing his uniform to his younger brother’s games, Brogan said. “He was awfully proud of what he was doing and it was more or less his calling,” he said.

Soper was a “natural athlete” and played basketball and football his freshman and sophomore years at Lumen Christi. He also played baseball his freshman year. Coaches and teammates said the skilled basketball forward and football defensive end was an aggressive player who stood out as a leader.

“He never backed down from anything,” said friend and former teammate Andy Hawley. “He was one of the few sophomores that got moved up to varsity and he just stepped right in and wasn’t intimidated.”

Though he was tough on the field, he was always gentle with the children who knew and looked up to him, said Pat Neville, junior varsity football and basketball coach for Lumen Christi. “It was such an enjoyable time seeing him interact with the little kids,” Neville said. “He was this big kid taking care of little kids. Some high school kids think they’re too good to play with kids, but he really played with them.”

Soper always made time for the people in his life—especially the children—and was a favorite uncle.

“He loved to tease the kids and get them riled up, but he was always really gentle,” said Manser, an assistant to the principal at St. Mary’s School in Jackson.

Soper was supposed to visit a second-grade class at the school when he returned. The class had been sending Soper care packages and letters since his deployment a year ago and prayed for him every day, Manser said. They were putting together another bundle of packages and letters to send him this month.

Manser said Soper’s niece, Meg, loved him so much she told the family she “needed to go to heaven to be with uncle Matt.” “He was really a special boy and a good kid,” Manser said, fighting back tears. She said the family has been amazed by the outpouring of support from the community.

“You have all the respect and admiration in the world for those kids who serve and say a prayer for them every night,” Brogan said. “There’s nothing in the world you can say to make anyone feel better. All you can do is be there.”


Other links:

Washington Post
 Michigan Live
Military Times (original link – www.mco.com/valor/2827189.html)

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