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Army Sgt. Ronald Coffelt, 36, Fair Oaks; killed by a makeshift bomb

August 12, 2007|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

To learn how much he loved the Army, Sgt. Ronald Coffelt had to leave it.

A decade ago, the Fair Oaks, Calif., resident returned to civilian life after eight years as a soldier, but he later realized he had made a mistake, his family recalled.

So Coffelt, 36, joined the Army National Guard in New Mexico, where he had been working as a prison guard. And then he enlisted again in the Army, intending to make a career of it.

Last month, the father of five was killed by a makeshift bomb in Baghdad. He was on his second tour of duty, this one lengthened to 15 months from a year.

"He was anxious to get back home," said his father, Robert. "He was supposed to be back in the middle of June, and then a 90-day extension came."

Coffelt caught the military bug while growing up in Fair Oaks, where his parents and sister still live. Serving flag and country had been a family tradition: his father devoted six years to the California Army National Guard, and his paternal grandfather retired from the Army as a master sergeant.

But when Coffelt joined the Army right after graduation from Del Campo High School, it wasn't out of a sense of familial obligation, his father said.

"He liked to be where the action was," he said. "He started in Junior ROTC in high school in his freshman year . . . and that was it."

At Del Campo, Coffelt also pursued his passion for sports. He played on the football and basketball teams, and ran track. And, once he had children of his own -- they are now ages 6 to 15 -- he enjoyed coaching them in Little League, soccer and wrestling, while continuing to compete on the softball diamond.

"He was one of the best first basemen I ever saw," said his wife, Debi, an Army reservist who met him while they were serving in the regular Army in Colorado. "And he was a great soldier."

More than anything, she said, he was a family man: "That's all that ever mattered."

Coffelt missed his wife and children terribly during his two years in Iraq, his father said. He also longed for the green countryside around Ft. Bragg, N.C., where his family lives on base.

"He definitely hated the desert," his father said.

Otherwise, he added, his son did not speak much about Iraq, including the hazards he faced there as a military police officer.

"I would question him about it, and he would usually change the subject and want to talk about family," he said. "I would say something to him about it being dangerous, and he said, 'Dad, that's what I do. It's my job and it's what I do.' "

Coffelt died July 19. He served in the 503rd Military Police Battalion, 16th Military Police Brigade (Airborne), 18th Airborne Corps.

Among his other survivors are his mother, Janice; a sister, Kimberly Conner; and his grandmother, Pauline Coffelt, of Carmichael, Calif.

"My husband was a wonderful man," Debi Coffelt said. "He was a great father, and a very loving, caring and compassionate husband. And he loved his country."

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