FORWARD OPERATING BASE BRASSFIELD-MORA, Iraq — They were a pair of men who represented the broad canvas of soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division working in Iraq.
One was a fresh, 19-year-old private with a wife, a child on the way and less than a year of experience in the Army. The other was a 33-year-old Californian with a serious gun collecting hobby who joined the force in the fall of 2003.
On Thursday, scores of friends and fellow soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment gathered on a sun-bleached helipad on the small U.S. base near Samarra to remember the two men.
Pfc. Stephen Bicknell and Sgt. Lester Baroncini were killed Monday when their Humvee ran over an anti-tank mine on a road near Samarra. Both were members of Company A, 2-505, based at Fort Bragg, N.C.
When it came to recalling things they remembered most about Baroncini on Monday, soldiers invariably mentioned the Bakersfield, Calif.-native’s love of firearms.
“His favorite gun was the AK-47, I can tell you that,” said Pfc. Corey Maisch, Baroncini’s former roommate and close friend. “All he talked about was his AKs back home.”
Soldiers said they estimated the sergeant’s firearms collection to be in the dozens at least, but did that make him a gun nut?
“That doesn’t begin to describe it,” said Spc. Thomas Livesay, smiling.
“If it had a firing pin in it, he knew it,” he said.
Beyond his hobby, soldiers said Baroncini was always up for a joke.
“We always just kind of hung around and laughed,” Maisch said.
But the sergeant’s thoughts were often of home.
“He loved the ranch back home,” Maisch said.
Fewer soldiers knew Bicknell as closely, because the young Las Vegas native had just joined the unit in June, only two months before the battalion deployed to Samarra.
Livesay, who worked frequently with Bicknell, said the 19-year-old often talked about two favorite topics: his wife back home and sports.
“Dude loved football more than anything else in the world, I think,” Livesay said. A stocky kid of average height, Bicknell had an ambition to play football in Alabama when he got back home.
That would make him “the only 5-foot-9 quarterback” in the league, and Livesay joked that he wouldn’t be able to see over the line to throw the ball.
“No slants over the middle for him,” he said.
Livesay said the private was also famously proud of the shotgun he carried and was itching to use it as a door-opening device on raids rather than his foot.
“He was all about his shotgun,” Livesay said.
Others remembered Bicknell’s boundless work ethic and attention to detail when working on the Humvee he rode in.
“He wanted that truck to be as good as it could be,” said Company A commander Jaime Uptigraft.
Livesay said Bicknell joined the Army because he wanted to be a soldier — not just because he wanted a job.
“He did it for a reason, it wasn’t just an escape,” he said.
The two men were the first fatalities for the battalion since it took over operations in Samarra in August on its second deployment to Iraq. The city was the scene of the infamous Golden Mosque bombing in February that sparked a tide of sectarian violence between Sunni