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Loving Tears Mixed With Laughter and Inspiration

Memorial: His widow and fellow Marines reflect on Stephen Bryson, killed last week in a plane crash in Pakistan, as a man of quiet, rock-solid faith, intelligence and integrity.

January 19, 2002|MIKE ANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stephen L. Bryson died serving his country in the war on terrorism. On Friday, the Marine Corps gunnery sergeant was remembered for that, and for his other roles: husband, son, brother and friend. And as a man who embraced God throughout his 36 years.

In a highly charged 2 1/2-hour service at Friendship Baptist Church in Yorba Linda, Bryson's family, friends and fellow Marines told the story of a career military man who never feared death because he always tried to live life to its fullest.

"You made sure I knew how much you loved me every day. Not just with presents, but with your presence," said Katrina Bryson, the high school sweetheart from Alabama who became his wife. "You were everything I wished I could be. Now I can fly higher than an eagle. You are the wind beneath my wings."

Bryson and six other Marines were killed last week when their KC-130 Hercules slammed into a mountain in Pakistan while attempting to land. The cause of the crash has yet to be determined.

On Thursday, a somber ceremony for the dead was held at San Diego's Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, where their squadron was based.

Friday's memorial for Bryson, who lived in Rancho Santa Margarita, was somber as well. But the tears were mixed with laughter and inspiration. A slide show documented Bryson's life, while the church choir with which he sang belted out gospel songs that had the several hundred people in the congregation on their feet dancing and singing.

"We know that he is with the Lord," said the Rev. James D. Carrington, pastor of the church, where Bryson was also on the board of trustees. "And because he is with the Lord, we are going to have a good time."

"I'm on the battlefield soldiering for the Lord," the choir sang. Within minutes, three rows of stoic Marines in dress uniforms with stiff collars rose in unison and began clapping too.

'Peabo' Joined Marines Right Out of School

Bryson's comrades remembered "Peabo," who joined the Marines in 1985 right out of high school, as a man of intelligence and integrity who was quick to laugh but never angered.

"He was the calmest in the eye of the storm," said Gunnery Sgt. Michael Grace, who served with Bryson in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "That's why he was a mentor to us all."

Master Sgt. Terry O'Neil recalled awakening early one morning in Afghanistan and looking over to see Bryson sitting on his cot, a Bible open in his lap. He was quietly jotting down notes.

Bryson didn't openly push his faith, O'Neil said. Rather, he lived it by example.

"He brought his faith and religion with him, and he shared it with the Marines that were out there," O'Neil said. "He had a leadership skill and a leadership style that many Marines would like to aspire to. Stephen was a Marine's Marine. I miss him," he said, choking back tears. "To lose him. . . . It's hard."

Maj. Floyd Means Jr. flew overnight from Japan to be at the service. "There is nothing I wouldn't do for Stephen Bryson, because there is nothing he wouldn't do for me," he said.

Bryson was Means' video game competitor. He was the voice in his ear during missions, providing all the right answers to difficult questions. He and Katrina introduced Means to his future wife.

Once, Means found himself laboring most of a day to remove an exhaust system from his car. Bryson came along "and within two seconds, he had the answer," Means said. "Steve knew it all. And he gave it all freely."

When Maj. Kolan Hairston went to Bryson's home to comfort his widow, it was Katrina who ended up comforting him.

"She explained to me how lucky we were to have Stephen for the time we had," Hairston said. "He set the watermark for how we should live. He was a Marine. But more than that, far more that, he was a dear friend."

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