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F.C. Family Remembers Grandson Killed in Action

U.S. Army Specialist Stephan L. Mace of Purcellville was one of eight American soldiers killed in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan earlier this month. It is an increasingly familiar story of loss for families of soldiers back home, including Mace’s family residing in Falls Church. P1030095

U.S. Army Specialist Stephan L. Mace of Purcellville was one of eight American soldiers killed in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan earlier this month. It is an increasingly familiar story of loss for families of soldiers back home, including Mace’s family residing in Falls Church.

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John and Kay Petro stand next to their grandson’s memorial. (Photo: News-Press)

A memorial of flowers, patriotic themed balloons and several photographs of Mace sits on the front lawn of John and Kay Petros, his grandparents, whose home is just off Fisher Avenue in Falls Church.

That memorial serves as a marker for those who knew Mace and his family to commemorate his life, and is a stark reminder of the ongoing ordeal of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. To date, 881 Americans have died in Operation Enduring Freedom.

Here in Falls Church, the Petros and Mace’s brother Matthew, who lives with them, have had to endure the recent loss of a man who, Matthew said, “lived his life full throttle.”

It was Mace’s grandfather, John Petros, a retired CIA officer, who was asked by Mace to bring him to the U.S. Army recruitment office, John said.

“Stephan wanted to be in the Army ever since he was a little kid,” Petros said. “When I took him around the recruiters, I told him we were going to talk to the Navy, the Air Force and the Army.”

Mace had accelerated his studies at Loudoun Valley High School, where he earned his GED in 2005, in order to join the Army, according to the school’s vice principal.

“When he took the aptitude test at the recruitment office, they wanted him right away, if he qualified physically as well,” Petros said. “Stephan was mentally and physically ready.”

Mace, who joined the Army’s ranks at 19 years old, five years into the Afghanistan war effort, became a Cavalry Scout for the Fourth Brigade Combat Team. His team’s assignment took him and twenty fellow soldiers deep into the inhospitable terrain near Pakistan’s Northwest Provinces, a notorious passage for Taleban soldiers and supplies.

Mace and his family exchanged regular e-mails, Kay Petros said, when the soldiers’ generators were functioning. On occasion, Mace had leave to come home. His last visit to the States was in August.

“He was worried about his buddies left at the camp,” she said. “They were a very close knit group.”

Mace’s camp included seven Latvian soldiers and a contingent of Afghan combatants.

“Stephan had a lot of respect for the Latvians, who weren’t bound by the same restrictions as the American soldiers. They could return fire without confirming an enemy’s identity,” John Petros said. “He liked the Afghan soldiers in the camp, too. But he doubted they could become as effective at the things the U.S. soldiers could do. They’re experienced as guerrilla soldiers, it’s ingrained in them.”

Mace shared stories of the defunct Soviet tanks and vehicles riddled about the campsite, relics of the last foreign invasion of Afghanistan. He also told his family of the boredom of much of daily life for American soldiers at the remote Camp Keating.

“A lot of soldiers would just say we are here because we are where we’re told to be,” John explained. “Stephan would say there wasn’t a hell of a lot to do, and they would only occasionally engage the enemy during skirmishes. He would say, ‘We eat, we work out, and we go out on patrol.”

Last winter, the Petros’ sent Mace an X-Box video game console as an early Christmas gift. “The soldiers loved it, and they would spend much of their time playing on the X-Box between missions.”

According to Mace’s last e-mail home, the team had fixed up the camp and had regular electricity.

In the wake of his death, the Petros and Matthew, the eldest of Mace’s three brothers, remembered Mace for his boundless enthusiasm and sarcastic sense of humor in an interview with the News-Press.

“He was the running back on the football field, the best player on the basketball court and on the baseball field, but you would never have known it talking to Stephan,” said John.

Matthew added, “Stephan wasn’t a prima donna. He lived in 21 years what most accomplish in their long lifetime. It’s not a matter of what you could have done: life’s about what you have done.

“He lived every day to the fullest.”

Mace hadn’t considered the Army as a life-long career, John said, and that his grandson intended to pursue a college education through the G.I. Bill. “He was bright and the world was his oyster.”

John said that Mace was “a joy to any gathering and always enjoyed making jokes.”

Holding up a photograph at a recent wedding which Mace had attended, John added, laughing, “If he got together with Garret, a close friend, the two of them had plenty of fun.”

Matthew said that Mace was interested in pursuing a career in the hunting guide business or with the Department of Homeland Security.

Starting when he was 16, Mace worked on safaris for three summers in South Africa with a close family friend.

The family said the U.S. Army had been very supportive with preparations for Mace’s funeral, which took place on Monday, Oct. 19. at Arlington National Cemetary.

“The U.S. Army has been wonderful. They are like a family,” Kay said, noting that the Army assigned a Casualty Assistance Officer, Sgt. Woodson, to work personally with the family.

John said the most emotional moment before Monday’s funeral, was the arrival of Mace’s body at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

“There were three-star and two-star generals there to talk to his mother. A general was on his knees talking to her, who expressed his own mixed feelings about the war,” John said. “He told her, ‘We have to serve our country, we have to do our duty.'”

Mace’s youngest brother, Christopher, 17, had just joined the army “in his brother’s footsteps,” Kay said. “The Army’s worked with him to be reassigned to non-combat duties.”

Mace’s death also left behind his girlfriend, Emily, from Colorado where he had been stationed at Fort Carson while in the U.S. She also attended his funeral.

In the weeks following Mace’s death, John said Mace’s safari partner and the family’s close friend, Adrian, spent some time at the Mace residence in Purcellville.

“When his mother got the visit from the Army on the first day, she was hysterical. Adrian raced up from Charlottesville that day and consoled her,” John said. “He told her that to get through the ordeal, you have to live every day knowing that things will get easier, that every day brings you one day closer to Stephan.”

The tragic loss of eight American soldiers in Nuristan came on the heels of an earlier loss of nine soldiers in a similar “rather desperate, heroic operation,” John explained.

U.S. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is spearheading an investigation of U.S. military decisions in Afghanistan, this time focusing on Mace’s team, John said. “There was a vulnerable and isolated U.S. team against a well-armed Taleban.”

He added, “With Sen. Webb, you’ve got your guy. It’s atypical of politicians to be so supportive.”

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