Army Staff Sgt. Steven H. Bridges of Tracy, a father of four who had hoped to become a history teacher when he finished his military career, died Monday on a nighttime patrol north of Baghdad.
Army officials said Bridges, 33, was in one of two Stryker vehicles -- a lightweight, high-tech troop carrier introduced only recently in Iraq -- that plunged into a canal when the dike on which they were driving suddenly collapsed.
Two other soldiers, Spc. Joseph M. Blickenstaff, 23, and Spc. Christopher J. Rivera Wesley, 26, both of Oregon, also died in the accident.
They were the first fatalities for the newly arrived Stryker brigade from the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment at Ft. Lewis, Wash., and the first connected with the new $2-million General Dynamics vehicle since its introduction in the military three years ago.
Before they could enter the combat zone, the 309 Strykers sent to Iraq from Ft. Lewis had to be retrofitted in Kuwait with heavy metal grills to protect them from the rocket-propelled grenades favored by insurgents.
Family members said Bridges, a decorated veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, was delighted with his assignment to Iraq as part of the first Stryker-equipped forces. "He loved the new vehicle. He talked about it all the time," said sister Heidi Merkel of Riverbank, Calif.
Friends from his schooldays in Tracy recalled Bridges as a deeply religious young man with a passion for theater.
"He was in just about every play we did all four years he was in high school," said retired Tracy High School drama teacher Donald R. Bisbee. "When he wasn't acting, he was building sets."
Bridges graduated from Tracy High in 1988 and, to the surprise of his family, joined the Army in 1991.
He is survived by his wife, Debra; their 5-year-old daughter; and three stepchildren from his wife's earlier marriage.
In a statement read by military authorities in Ft. Lewis, Debra Bridges said of her husband: "He knew that he was going to miss his family and, at times, expected he might not see us again. But he deployed with confidence that he was well-trained and ready. No one could have predicted the accident that suddenly took this man from our lives."
His parents, Sheldon and Loretta Bridges, live in Tracy.
The time and dates for memorial services in Ft. Lewis and Tracy have yet to be set.