By Jeff Noble / Staff writer
Pfc. Dustin P. Napier, of London, who served with the United States Army in Operation Enduring Freedom, and warmly remembered by his friends and classmates at South Laurel High School as a man “totally committed to being an Army soldier from the very first day,” died Sunday in Afghanistan from injuries he suffered from enemy small-arms fire. He was 20 years old.
He was killed during the exchange of fire in the city of Qalat, in Afghanistan’s Zabul Province on Sunday afternoon. During the incident, two other soldiers were wounded. All three were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based in Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
Napier was deployed to Afghanistan in April 2011 for a one-year tour of duty.
He joined the U.S. Army in July 2010, completed his basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia and arrived at Fort Wainwright in November of that same year.
A spokesperson for the Army in Alaska said Tuesday that Napier’s family and next-of-kin were notified of his passing. Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time.
Hearts were heavy throughout London and Laurel County on Monday and Tuesday as word spread of Napier’s death. The sadness and grief were especially painful at South Laurel High School, where Napier graduated as a member of the Class of 2010. Outside the high school, the American flag stood at half-mast. Inside, students, faculty and friends who knew and admired him spoke of Napier as a person well-liked, well-respected and willing to help everyone.
“We got the news Monday morning about his death. We’re very saddened to hear this. I remember Napier when he was here, and I remember him as a model student, very quiet and serious. You always knew where he stood,” said Col. Mark Jones, who’s with the Air Force Junior ROTC at South Laurel High.
Jones told the Times-Tribune that a memorial service for Napier would be held at the school this Friday at 9:30 a.m. by members of the JROTC.
He said many of the cadets were “numbed” by the sudden death of their former classmate, and are taking it hard. “A lot of the cadets who knew Dustin started filtering in the school Monday, to see what they could do to honor his memory. Everybody’s really sad, especially the ones who knew Dustin personally.”
South Laurel’s Principal, David Cummins, agreed. Showing a picture of Napier in his military dress uniform while in JROTC, Cummins said Napier was a “model student” and was both popular and respected. “The last couple of days have been really trying around here with his loss. A lot of students really looked up to him as a role model and someone they could believe in.”
Cummins added some of the current and former JROTC students there were planning on making a collage in memory of Napier, by using some of his pictures on the social website Facebook and pictures of him in military service.
Never was the show of sorrow and affection more apparent than in the school’s JROTC classroom.
“When I walked in here Monday and heard he died, my legs almost collapsed. It was unbelievable. He was a good friend, a good mentor, and truly a good person,” said Devan Burkhart, a senior at South Laurel and currently cadet captain of the school’s JROTC program.
Burkhart was a sophomore when Napier was a senior, and the two met while serving in the military program. “He really had a kind of charisma about him that you liked. What I learned in the JROTC program as far as the Color Guard, the Drill Team and other things, I learned from him. He was the one who would tell me, ‘Stick with it,’ when I got frustrated with the program, and I did stick with it.”
Amber Glass remembered Napier as someone she could look up to. “He was very aware of everybody, and always stood up for the underdog, which I thought was very nice. Dustin wasn’t cocky but confident, and knew who he was and his place in life.”
A junior at South Laurel, Glass credits Napier for helping her aspire to her current rank as second lieutenant in the school’s JROTC program. “He inspired me to do whatever I wanted, and to follow my dreams. Anybody who knew him is hurting inside right now.”
“Dustin was a really awesome friend. I was a sophomore when Dustin was a senior. He was more like a brother to me,” said Ashley Smith, currently a junior and Second Lieutenant in South Laurel’s JROTC program.
Recalling his time in school with her, Smith remembered Napier as a young man of principles. “He encouraged me to go into the Army, and he gave us a lot in return. He taught us discipline, self-respect and basic core values. He said, ‘Service before self,’ and he not only talked it, he did it. Dustin lived his dream, which was to be an American soldier.”
And there was this comment from a friend of Napier’s — a sophomore who wished to remain anonymous. “Dustin was respectable, and you could trust him when he talked to you. He was always respectful of his friends, and cared about everyone. There wasn’t anyone he didn’t like.”
According to one of his teachers in high school, Napier had his sights set on joining the military at a very young age.
“From the time he was 4 years old, Dustin wanted to be in uniform. He would be with a group of friends and buddies who would go out and play Army when he was growing up. Most of the time, he would be dressed in BDU’s (Battle Dress Uniform) or camos. He was the son of a military man, and Dustin was from a military family, so he knew what he wanted to be. His mom said early on that being in the Army was what he wanted to do. And he did to the very end,” said Chief Master Sargeant Randy Creech, with the JROTC at South Laurel High.
Creech noted that during his four years in school, Napier was the unit’s Corps Commander. “He was, and he was a leader to his fellow cadets. He never missed a semester during his four years here. Everyone looked up to him, and Dustin earned a lot of respect. We’ve got a lot of students who’ve lost a friend, a cadet, and a classmate. It’s tough.”
Two of Napier’s closest friends from the Class of 2010 served with him in JROTC, and Tuesday afternoon they brought a picture of all of them, spit-shined and polished-up in their dress uniforms. To Zachary Skaw and Steven Cheek, that picture is now priceless.
“We’d do crazy stuff in high school. We’d go to Dustin’s house, and we’d bug his dad. We’d shoot rifles and Dustin was an expert shot. He’d show us the movie, “Full Metal Jacket”, quoting all the lines in it, because he remembered them and loved the movie. And he’d show videos of his favorite group, Jim Morrison and The Doors. Two of his favorite songs were “Light My Fire” and “Love Me Two Times,” said Cheek.
“We’d go to Dustin’s house and scout out deer outside. We’d watch a lot of movies, and we weren’t there or with the JROTC program, we’d spend most of our time at school activities, like ballgames,” added Skaw, a former London resident who now lives in Corbin.
Cheek pointed out one of the persons in the picture as another one of Napier’s closest friends, Seth Thompson. “He couldn’t make it here today, but if Seth was around, he would tell us how much he missed Dustin.”
“Our great nation has lost another brave son from the heart of a region where countless men and women are raised, like Pfc. Dustin Napier, with a devout love for our country and consider it the greatest honor to serve in the U. S. Armed Forces. My wife, Cynthia and I offer our deepest condolences to the Napier family. Their sacrifice will forever live on in the hearts and minds of those who loved and knew Dustin best,” said 5th District Congressman Hal Rogers, in a statement from his Washington office Tuesday evening.
In the JROTC room at South Laurel, Col. Jones has a picture of Napier during his senior year. It was taken at Pine Mountain State Resort Park, and shows him relaxing with his hands on his head, looking at and enjoying the view of the mountains from atop Chained Rock.
Written in the upper left-hand corner of the picture are these words. “Rest in Peace. PFC Dustin Paul Napier, from those at KY-932.”
KY-932 is the designation for the school’s Air Force JROTC unit, “Unit Kentucky 932.”
Jones quietly said, “When a soldier dies in the line of combat, we hear about it happening to Kentuckians all the time. But when it happens to a Laurel Countian, it really hits home. Dustin was one of us.”