Ana Sabrina Carmona was talking to her fiance, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Rex Schad, on March 10 when the soldier, who was deployed to Afghanistan, asked her to do him a favor.
“Please light a candle for my buddy, Wittman,” Schad said.
Sgt. Aaron Wittman, 28, of Chester, Va., was killed by enemy fire on Jan. 10 in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province. His death deeply impacted soldiers serving in eastern Afghanistan with the Army’s 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, including Schad.
It was the first time it hit Schad that “it could have been me,” Carmona told The Unknown Soldiers.
Carmona met Schad through a mutual friend while they were both living in Savannah, Ga.
“We just talked for hours,” she said about their first date in one of Savannah’s historic squares. “We decided that we were going to be New Year’s dates.”
After celebrating the dawn of 2012 together, Carmona and Schad became inseparable.
“It was this whirlwind romance,” she said. “I’d never experienced being with a military man, and I didn’t really know the risks.”
Eleven months later, just before leaving for Afghanistan, Schad told Carmona that he wanted to marry her. After subsequently mailing her a ring just in time for New Year’s Eve, the deployed soldier and his bride-to-be started to plan their wedding.
“I can’t wait to marry you,” Schad often told Carmona during daily phone conversations. “I can’t wait to come back.”
First, Schad, who was on his second deployment to Afghanistan, knew he had an important job to do. Winter was coming to a close, which meant the Taliban’s annual spring offensive was about to commence.
“As soon as the ice melts, it’s going to get bad,” the soldier told his fiancee in early March.
Carmona didn’t know that Schad had already saved multiple lives on the battlefield. The Army squad leader was too humble to take credit for his accomplishments.
“Rex was a huge hero and he never even told us,” Carmona said. “He was the ultimate military man ... he was a great soldier.”
After Schad asked his fiancee to light a candle for Sgt. Aaron Wittman on March 10, Carmona, who lives in Atlanta, became nervous when he didn’t call her the next morning.
“Sure enough, later that night, his mother called me and told me he was gone,” Carmona said.
According to the Department of Defense, Staff Sgt. Rex Schad, 26, and a fellow soldier, Capt. Andrew Pedersen-Keel, 28, of South Miami, Fla., died March 11 in the Jalrez District of Afghanistan’s Wardak Province when they were attacked by small-arms fire. Multiple reports said the soldiers were killed when an attacker dressed as an Afghan police officer opened fire on U.S. troops.
A few days later, Carmona was in Edmond, Okla., where her fiance grew up, to attend Schad’s funeral with his grieving family and friends.
“I was walking down an aisle, but it was not my wedding,” she said. “It was to his casket.”
Instead of reciting her vows at their wedding, Carmona, 23, read them aloud at Schad’s memorial service. While the pain of losing her future husband remains excruciating and surreal, Carmona continues to take comfort in what she witnessed in Oklahoma.
“I could tell that he was so loved and it was amazing to be able to see that and experience it,” she said. “I think that’s a lot of what’s gotten me through this ... the support of everyone and the love they had for Rex.”
Schad, who is also survived by his mother, father and brother, left a lasting imprint on many, including the woman he was so excited to marry.
“I want to continue living for him,” she said. “That said, I don’t take things for granted anymore.”
Each night, Carmona lights a candle for two fallen heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in 2013: Sgt. Aaron Wittman and Staff Sgt. Rex Schad.
“It’s crazy to me that I’m lighting two candles now,” she said. “But that was Rex’s request.”
Tom Sileo is a syndicated columnist. His Unknown Soldiers columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and appear in the Centre Daily Times on Fridays. Readers may follow his posts on Facebook and his blog at www.unknownsoldiersblog.com.