Five Years Later, Friends, Family Pay Tribute to a Slain Leader
Sgt. Michael Rowe, killed in Iraq in 2005, took charge on and off the battlefield.
Sgt. Michael D. Rowe was just 23 years old when he was killed in Iraq's Al-Anbar province on March 28, 2006.
He was in the lead Humvee providing security for a convoy traveling on the Amman-Baghdad Highway west of ar-Rutbah when his vehicle tripped a fishing line strung across the road, unleashing a Chinese rocket into the vehicle's flank from near point-blank range.
Rowe died on the road that day, one day before his 24th birthday, and two months before his wife, Rebecca, gave birth to a daughter he would never see.
Nearly five years later, more than 150 friends and family gathered at his father's New Port Richey home on Saturday, March 26, to commemorate the day of his death by honoring the way he lived.
Rowe was a soldier -- and loved being a soldier -- but he was also a father-to-be, a husband, a son, a brother, a friend, a comrade and, most of all, a good leader in a bad place.
"Mike was loved by so many people," said Dave Rowe, his father. "The guys who served under him said they would follow him anywhere."
Among those at Saturday's tribute were four soldiers who served under Rowe, and were with him that day on the Amman-Baghdad Highway.
Five years later, they were still following their sergeant -- this time, they had followed him home.
"We loved him," said Sgt. Tod Folds, 40, of Atlanta, Ga. "We miss him."
A MIX OF PASSIONS
Rowe was a mix of many passions, Dave Rowe said. "He was a boy -- full of energy," he said. "Everything he did, he did with exuberance."
He enjoyed catching largemouth bass, snook, and gar pike from the lily-dotted pond behind his home. He was a photographer and techno-music disc jockey.
Among his friends at Gulf High School, he was regarded as a leader.
"He saved my life," said Danny Ellerin, 27, of New Port Richey, who deejayed with Rowe while they were in high school. "In 2001 -- back in my stupid days -- I was ODing on Xanax and Vicodin, and he made me go to the hospital."
Rowe had not been with Ellerin that night. But when he had learned his friend had taken prescription medications and was falling asleep, Rowe took charge.
"When he found out what I did, he made me go to the hospital," Ellerin said. "No one else would go because they were afraid they were going to get into trouble."
After graduating from Gulf High in 2001, Rowe enlisted in the National Guard and was in training on Sept. 11, 2001. Shortly after, he opted for active duty in the Army and was assigned to the 46th Engineer Battalion in Ft. Polk, La.
He enjoyed the Army and planned to make it a career. He re-enlisted in November 2005 -- shortly before his unit was deployed to ar-Rutbah, a city of 55,000 that straddles the Amman–Baghdad Highway, the primary thoroughfare from Jordan and Syria into Iraq.
By now, it was well-known that the most dangerous duty in Iraq was protecting exposed supply convoys on long stretches of desert roadways.
Rowe volunteered for that assignment, joining the 46th Engineer Battalion's Warrior Brigade and training as a sapper.
"Mike was a refueler, but he trained to become a sapper. He was the only refueler in Army at that time with a sapper patch," Dave Rowe said. "He volunteered for combat escort because he was more qualified than anyone else."
Rowe never told his mother about his new duties. And he didn't learn until he was in Iraq that he was to be a father.
Three days after he left for Iraq, his wife found a poem Rowe had written to his family, with stanzas dedicated to each, saying goodbye.
"So it has finally come, words that shant be spoken, my life must be done, hearts must be broken. Fear not my dearest family, for I am not alone, I rest with many loved ones, in my eternal home.
"Saddened as you must feel, I hope you do not dwell, for the life I lived, I lived it so well ..." Rowe's poem began.
"He told his wife, 'I'm not coming back,'" Dave Rowe said. "Somehow, he knew it -- knew it."
AN EYEBLINK TOO LATE
If he did know his fate, Rowe kept his foreboding to himself in Iraq. He busied himself keeping his soldiers alert, motivated, and alive.
"He was a different type of leader. He honestly cared about his soldiers," said T.J. Hagert, 26, of North Platte, Neb., who was a gunner in Rowe's convoy security team. "A lot of leaders could do a better job if they emulated him."
"He didn't like to see anyone get bullied," said Brad Clifton, 31, of Columbus, Ohio, who also served under Rowe on the CST. "He didn't like to see anyone down or depressed if he could do something about it."
Hagert flew from Denver to attend Saturday's tribute to his sergeant. Clifton drove from Ohio. Folds and Sgt. Jordan Dukes, 26, of Sacramento, Calif., a medic with the CST, came from Ft. Polk, where they remain with the 46th Engineers Battalion.
They were all with Rowe on that day -- March 28, 2006 -- west of ar-Rutbah.
Folds said the CST was escorting a survey team to an area near the Syrian border they named "the Korean Village." The battalion was looking for a good site to build a "parking lot" for a depot, he said.
There was nothing particularly ominous about the mission, Folds said. Rowe "was excited, in a good mood," he recalled. "Before we set out, he attacked me with a bottle of water and bit me on the shoulder."
But there were also no illusions about the dangers ahead, Folds said. "As we went out, we had to stop and fuel up," he said. "That gave everyone a head's up" that a convoy was hitting the highway.
The improvised explosive device -- a Chinese-made rocket -- that derailed the convoy and killed Rowe was triggered by nearly invisible clear-plastic monofilament fishing line. In the same eyeblink that the lead humvee tripped it, a soldier scouting the road saw it.
An eyeblink too late.
Rowe was in the back of the humvee, training a new arrival to the CST team. He absorbed most of the blow. Despite frantic efforts to keep him alive, his soldiers could not save him.
Asked if there is a way to adequately describe to those who've never experienced combat what it is like to witness the loss of a trusted comrade, a friend, and a self-less leader such as Rowe, Folds responded succintly: "No."
"My son totally believed in what he was doing," Dave Rowe said. "The people there thanked him every day for their freedom. He told me that a couple of times. You never hear that in the media."
A Vietnam-Era veteran who guarded nuclear sites with the Air Force, Dave Rowe said there is something else rarely mentioned in the media -- more than 47,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq.
His son is among the 4,400 Americans killed in Iraq since 2003. A mold-maker, Dave Rowe created ornamental dog tags imprinted with his son's name, along with his date of birth and death. He bears a tattoo on right bicep in his son's honor. It says: "All Gave Some, Some Gave All."
On the front patio of his home, there is a gold motorcycle with a photo and a plaque commemorating Michael D. Rowe.
"It's been five years now," Dave Rowe said. "I still cry."