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Military Deaths / Army Spc. Wayne M. Geiger, 23, Lone
Pine

Killed by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad

December 02, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

LONE PINE, CALIF. — When he was a student, there was one thing about Wayne Geiger that didn't change in his first years on Lone Pine High School's basketball team: Other players gravitated toward him instead of the coach.

But as Geiger entered his senior season, Coach Matt Kingsley devised a plan to channel the teenager's competitive nature and leadership skills into a winning strategy. "I told him we would both lead the team," Kingsley said, "provided he accept discipline from me."

Geiger flashed a disarming smile and responded, "Sure thing, coach -- if you're right."

Coach and player worked as a team, and the plan worked. Lone Pine High, the smallest school in its league, was undefeated that season, its best record in 50 years.

Geiger's father, Randy, a lieutenant in the Inyo County Sheriff's Department, and his mother, Kim, a civil officer in the department, said he joined the Army in 2005 to put his take-control abilities, confidence and courage to work on the battlefield in Iraq.

On Sept. 1, Army Spc. Wayne M. Geiger, 23, was deployed to Iraq. He was killed Oct. 18 when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle in Baghdad. He was assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, based in Vilseck, Germany.

Nine days after his death, more than 2,000 people lined up along a desolate stretch of U.S. Highway 395 with hats off and right hands over their hearts as his body was escorted by a motorcade of law enforcement and fire department vehicles to a funeral service at the Lone Pine High gymnasium, where he once played.

A graveside service followed at Mt. Whitney Cemetery, where dozens of friends and neighbors signed a basketball that was buried alongside the casket.

Weeks later, staring out a living room window facing Mt. Whitney, Geiger's father said, "Wayne was a born athlete. When he was still in diapers, Wayne liked to wear a plastic Raiders football helmet and tackle anyone who came through the front door."

In high school, Geiger was rambunctious and edgy, leaving some to wonder how he would harness all that energy.

He did so in the Army. Even his parents and sister, Jesseca, 20, were surprised by the difference a few months in the military made in him.

"He'd greet you with a firm handshake, and when he spoke, he looked you right in the eye," his father said. "One day, I asked him, 'Wayne, where did you get this sense of duty and patriotism? I never saw this in you before.' "

He said his son smiled and said, "Dad, you weren't looking hard enough."

"We're indescribably proud of Wayne," his father said. "He's done his part. He's among his heroes now, and part of the great history of this country. My family is also humbled by the support we've received from throughout the Owens Valley and beyond."

The valley lies at the heart of the working-class high desert county spread over 10,200 square miles. Sheriff Bill Lutze figures that about 10% of the county's 18,000 residents turned out to honor the first Owens Valley service member killed in combat since the Vietnam War.

"It was the largest display of community support I've ever seen in these parts," Lutze said. "From the mortuary in Bishop 60 miles south to Lone Pine, people turned out to watch the procession. Truck drivers parked on the side of the road and saluted. Fish hatchery workers clutched American flags. Parents showed little children how to place their hands over the hearts. Everyone was crying."

Chris Langley, executive director of the Lone Pine Film History Museum, remembers the funeral service as a "very, very quiet and solemn occasion" that strengthened bonds among the small communities facing the jagged crest of the Sierra Nevada.

Among those to see the procession was Jeff Tropple, who, with his wife, Trina, owns the Seasons Restaurant. The Tropples are neighbors of the Geiger family. They have lived in the area for 12 years, but that still makes them newcomers by local standards.

As terrible as the day was, the funeral procession brought home the sense of community that links so many people here.

"My wife and I have lived here since 1995 but never quite felt as though we belonged until that day," he said. "We were overwhelmed with a sense of 'this is home.' "

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

War casualties

Total U.S. deaths*:

* In and around Iraq**: 3,879

* In and around Afghanistan***: 402

* Other locations***: 63

*Includes military and Department of Defense employed civilian personnel killed in action and in nonhostile circumstances

**As of Friday

***As of Nov. 24

Source: Department of Defense

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