Justin Clouse, a soldier from Sprague, Washington, who was among U.S. forces killed in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan, was remembered Tuesday as a quiet leader with a big heart.
“On the outside, he looked like a big, mean tough guy,” said Chad Prewitt, who taught high school and coached basketball while Clouse attended Sprague High School. “When you got to know him, he was really a gentle giant.”
Clouse, 22, was one of five soldiers killed by a U.S. airstrike called in to help a special operations unit ambushed by the Taliban in southern Afghanistan Monday.
“Investigators are looking into the likelihood that friendly fire was the cause. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these fallen,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told the Associated Press.
Tina Clouse said her son enlisted in the Army about a year after he graduated from Sprague High School in 2010 and was on his second tour in Afghanistan. He loved fishing and hunting, and he played basketball and football in school, she said.
He planned to get married shortly after he finished his service next May and talked about using his military benefits to study engineering with the hope of eventually working in the oil business.
“He always wanted to serve his country,” Tina Clouse said.
Justin was a vehicle gunner, she said. He apparently was part of a joint operation of NATO and Afghan forces in the Arghandab district of southern Zabul province that came under attack from the Taliban and called in air support, the AP reported.
One of the other five killed was Aaron Toppen, 19, family spokeswoman Jennie Swartz told the Associated Press from the family’s Mokena, Illinois, home, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. Swartz said representatives from the U.S. Army came to the door of Toppen’s mother, Pam Toppen, in the middle of the night to deliver the news.
Military representatives also went to the home of Justin Helton’s parents in Beaver, Ohio, early Tuesday to inform them of their son’s death, a relative said.
Mindy Helton said her cousin specialized in dealing with explosives and was based out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Justin Helton, 25, had been in Afghanistan about two months and was engaged to be married, she said. He had been in the Army since 2010.
The names of the other two soldiers killed had not been released by the Pentagon Tuesday because not all families had been notified.
But word of Clouse’s death spread quickly through Sprague, a town of about 550, where he was well-known and well-liked, said high school principal Bill Ressel.
Clouse attended the town’s small public schools from fifth grade through high school, said Ressel, who watched him grow from “a little, pudgy grade kid in grade school” to a dedicated athlete.
“He loved sports,” Ressel said. “He worked his tail off to get where he was.”
For the basketball team fielded jointly by Sprague and Harrington high schools, he “kind of played everything” but was probably most effective as the team’s 5-foot-11 post player, Prewitt said. He was the team captain and the most valuable player his senior year.
“He was a quiet leader, he led by example,” said Prewitt, who is now principal at Davenport High School.
In his senior year, Sprague and Harrington districts decided to end their long-standing cooperative arrangement in sports. Clouse got up in a room full of adults and urged them not to do it because of the bonds students formed building those teams.
“He was very passionate about what he believed in,” Prewitt said. “This wasn’t going to affect him, he was graduating. It was for the students coming up.”
The schools formed new cooperatives with other Eastern Washington schools, taking new names and mascots, so Clouse was among the last of the Sprague-Harrington Falcons. He kept in touch with teachers and coaches, and once told Prewitt he was joining the Army because he thought the military would be a great place and open up doors. His second tour was to end in September.
He had dinner with Prewitt’s family a few months ago, before starting his second tour in Afghanistan. The two communicated as recently as Saturday over the Internet.
“He said, ‘How you doing old man? How’s the family?’ ” Prewitt recalled. “He’s in Afghanistan and he’s more worried about how I’m doing. That’s the kind of guy he was.”