David Bartlett Roten Jr. was killed in action during an attack on a safe house in Afghanistan on Thanksgiving Day in 2014. The family, friends and brothers in arms he left behind tell of a courageous man who lived passionately, loved well and inspired others to do the same.
Dave was coming home for the last time. Our family had gathered to meet him upon his arrival from Afghanistan. Now, in the dead of night, standing on the tarmac of Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, we held tightly to each other and silently waited. Knees trembled, partly from the cold but more from the indescribable anticipation of seeing with our eyes what we still could not believe in our hearts. A C-17 military cargo plane, parked just a few feet away, was poised for the dignified transfer of our fallen soldier. As we peered into the shadows of the aircraft’s cavernous interior, a rectangular, flag-draped wooden box at last began to emerge. Solemnly and in step, six United States servicemen carried our brother and son down the lowered ramp and passed by, from left to right, just beyond our reach. Carefully, the carry team placed the container into the rear of a large white van and closed the door. With a final salute, the vehicle slowly pulled away and disappeared into the darkness.
Though our family’s grief over losing Dave was intensely personal, in the days following his death, we would learn that our pain was shared by so many of his friends and comrades who came, literally, from around the world to pay their respects. He may have been Dave to us, but he was known as “Achilles” or “Hooch”—among other telling nicknames—by his devoted bands of brothers. Each could tell stories of bravery and kindness, adventure and humor. Most all of them would tell of a courageous man who lived passionately, loved well and inspired others to do the same.
We should have seen it coming. Davie, as we called him when he was little, was nearly 2 years old, and already, our firstborn was a force to be reckoned with. His mom and I had told him to do something, and if I remember correctly, it was to sit, not stand, on the couch. His body seemed to twitch slightly in response as he gave us a sideways glance and, with a matter-of-fact shrug of his tiny shoulders, said simply, “I can’t.” We stifled a chuckle and knew this was a boy who was going to push the limits, especially his own.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 21, 1980, David Bartlett Roten Jr. would soon tagalong with his parents as we moved to Nashville. The following year, Dave would welcome the first unofficial lifetime member of his brotherhood pack, baby brother Matt. Two years later, the family relocated to Fort Worth, Texas, and grew twice more when Lisa and Greg were added to the fold. By the time Davie was 7 years old, the Rotens were packing up once again and headed for Ellenwood, Georgia, his playground and base of operations for the next 16 years.
A natural athlete, Dave excelled at most sports he attempted, getting his first taste of organized competition while playing soccer as a 4-year-old. Later, as a baseball player, he would display a beautiful left-handed swing. During his teenage years, he enthusiastically embraced snowboarding, skiing and motorcycling, while leaving room for high school football as an undersized but formidable lineman. If Dave’s skills did not always match the sport in which he was engaged, he was not above improvising, as witnessed years later on a golf course, where his “Happy Gilmore” approach and swing launched a ball into erratic orbit time after time.
“No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends.”John 15:13
Dave was all boy. He could turn mundane domestic chores into workout sessions or opportunities for invention. Once, when he had kitchen duty, his mom walked in to find him drying the dishes with a leaf blower. Dave had an appreciation for animals of all kinds, including his pit bull and his pet python. Though he loved history, art and music, the classroom would prove to be too confining.
He longed for adventure and a purpose bigger than himself. The band of brothers that began with just he and Matt was growing to include neighborhood buddies. A precursor to packs to which Dave would belong in the future, these boys would help each other survive the turbulent teenage years, if nothing else.
In the years immediately following high school, Dave was employed as a metal worker, a bartender and as an assistant manager for an ice-skating rink, winning the respect and affection of bosses and peers alike for his work ethic and affability. In between jobs, he attended college for a semester or two. Nothing quite fit. Then, as with many Americans, love of country and a desire to defend her was stirred in response to 9/11. On that very day, Dave went out and did the only thing he knew to do, I suppose: He bought a Mossburg shotgun. The warrior had awakened.
By the spring of 2003, Dave was making plans to join the Army. However, there was something he wanted to check off his to-do list first. He had the seemingly foolhardy notion of fighting—with no previous experience—in the upcoming Georgia Golden Gloves boxing tournament. After just six weeks of intense training, he stepped into the ring to fight for the state light heavyweight championship. Punishing blows to the head inflicted by his opponent in the first round only served to fuel a gutsy and expeditious comeback in the second. Dave won by technical knockout.
On July 8, 2003, Dave, now 23, raised his right hand and took the oath of enlistment into the United States Army. After completing basic training and infantry school in Fort Benning, Dave would make it through a grueling selection and training process at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, before earning the coveted Green Beret—an arduous undertaking spanning almost two years.
As part of the 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Dave saw extensive combat as a weapons sergeant during deployments to Iraq from January 2006 through October 2007. He quickly earned the respect of peers and superiors alike for his calm demeanor and keen marksmanship, even while coming under heavy fire himself. Other notable actions indicative of Dave’s example of leadership, initiative and courage are recorded in narratives accompanying numerous military service awards he received, including the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal with Valor. Of all the accolades received, he valued none more than the Hard Hitter Award—a recognition by his peers in Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 043 as the “best performing, most dependable and hardest working operator.”
In 2010, after almost seven years of service, Dave ended his career in the Army but continued actively supporting the United States government in austere and hostile environments, this time in Afghanistan. He soon felt at home with his new band of brothers, most of them also former members of Special Operation Forces. For the next four years, Dave would alternate working rotations in Afghanistan with stateside visits home or exciting adventures around the globe. He was always on the move, always exploring, always looking for the next challenge and always pushing the limits—in a weight room, on a surfboard, on a mountain face and on the battlefield.
It was the morning of Nov. 27, 2014: Thanksgiving Day. At our home in Newborn, my wife and I were busy making preparations to celebrate the holiday later that afternoon with as many of our children and grandchildren as we could gather together. It would be a fun and happy day highlighted by the announcement that the soon-to-arrive grandchild would be a girl. There was laughter, tears of joy and hugs all around for the promise of a new life coming into the world.
In Afghanistan, the sun had already set. Dave and his team were on the job providing security for their five-story safe house and celebrating the holiday as best they could while away from home. Just one more week until this deployment was done, and it would be “wheels up” for the states once again. Dave had allowed himself a cheat day from his normal workout routine and healthy food choices and had enjoyed a big Thanksgiving meal with the rest of the guys. While some were getting ready for a game of poker, Dave bantered with a teammate in the kitchen over the last remaining piece of apple pie.
Outside, under cover of night, a vehicle quietly rolled down the steep hill stretching behind the house. When it hit the wall that encompassed the compound, all hell broke loose. A booming explosion caused by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device had breached the wall behind the safe house adjacent to theirs. Members from both houses scrambled to predetermined defensive positions as four enemy combatants attempted to gain entry into the compound next door. Engagement by Dave’s teammates on the roof triggered three to four machine gun nests that enjoyed an unobstructed line of fire from the hill above. The guys on the upper floors and roof were getting “absolutely pounded” by an “indescribable” amount of machine gun fire and called for Dave to bring up heavier weaponry from his position on the first floor. He grabbed his rifle, with a 40mm grenade launcher attached, and raced through a hail of bullets up the five flights of stairs to the roof and began engaging the enemy on the ground below.
Dave’s team would ultimately kill the four invaders, and after a Quick Response Force arrived to help, both teams evacuated their houses and their residents. Later, Dave and his comrades would be credited with saving the lives of everyone in the adjacent house, as well as their own. Miraculously, of the Americans, only two were wounded and one killed. Only one.
An Infinitely Greater Gift
Away from the city lights, it was dark, peaceful and quiet on our little farm. On this night, just days after Dave’s death, I had stepped outside for a few moments of solitude. Gazing overhead at the myriad of brilliant stars plastered against the black canvas of space, I was struck to the core by the knowledge that Dave was now somewhere beyond them. I pleaded with God for a sign, for confirmation that Dave was OK, that he was with Him. At that moment, my tear-filled eyes beheld a shooting star that blazed an arc across the glorious night sky.
Almost seven years after his passing, a loyal and loving circle of family and friends refuse to let his memory die. Annual Thanksgiving Day roll calls, Hard Hitter Go-Ruck events, Workouts of the Day, Longtab Brewing’s “Achilles” beer and even the naming of a child in his honor all represent expressions of love and admiration meant to celebrate his life and legacy.
I miss him still—we all do—but I am learning that, though his loss was great, the gift of having him for the time we did is infinitely greater. The way he changed us and made us all better just by being uniquely and authentically Dave … that will last forever.