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Army Reserve Spc. Carla Jane Stewart, 37, Glendale; killed in convoy vehicle rollover

February 25, 2007|Sandy Banks | Times Staff Writer

She was a wisp of a woman -- 5 feet tall, with a cascading crown of dark curls -- so unfailingly pleasant and polite that her fellow soldiers called her "Stuart Little" after the thoughtful little mouse in the classic children's story.

It had taken her 17 years to follow through on her adolescent dream of military service. But when Carla Jane Stewart finally joined the Army in July 2004, she dedicated herself to one goal: to serve in war-torn Iraq.

A member of the Army Reserve's 250th Transportation Company, based in El Monte, Stewart, 37, was killed Jan. 28 when her convoy vehicle overturned in Tallil, southeast of Baghdad. The accident is under investigation by Army officials.

The daughter of Armenian immigrants, Stewart grew up with the trappings of privilege in La Canada Flintridge. She attended private schools, spent seven years studying ballet, took riding lessons and spent vacations water skiing and ice skating at her family's second home in Lake Arrowhead.

Stewart, whose parents divorced when she was a teenager, always had an affinity for the less fortunate, her mother said.

"Carla had an innately noble nature," said Emmy Aprahamian, dressed in black and perched on a sofa in her small Glendale apartment, where the walls are crowded with photos of her daughter and tables piled high with sympathy cards. "Carla loved animals, children, nature.... She was just a sweet soul who cared about doing good for everybody."

While in high school, she invited a friend to move in because the girl had no place to live. Together, they decided to join the military. But the girls got cold feet at the recruiter's office, Aprahamian said.

Instead, after her 1987 graduation from Glendale's Hoover High School, Carla enrolled at Glendale Community College, studied mechanical drafting and went to work for the structural engineering firm owned by her father, Edmond Babayan.

At 25, she married Brandon Stewart, a high school friend who had been a buddy of her younger brother, Richard. But 10 years later, estranged from her husband, her old dream of military service resurfaced.

At 35, nearing the cutoff age for enlistment, she joined the Army Reserve, whose soldiers receive combat training and attend weekend drills but can live at home and maintain their civilian careers.

Neither of her parents understood her choice, but they didn't try to dissuade their headstrong daughter.

"Even if I had tried to stop her from going, it would have been impossible," her mother said. "I warned her that she might have to go to Iraq. She said, 'Mom, that's OK.' " She was proud to be a soldier, Aprahamian said. "She would say 'Mom, this uniform feels so right.' "

To her father, a former Marine, she admitted that she wanted to go to Iraq. "She told me she was going to go on her own anyway" if her unit wasn't called up, he said.

When she learned that local Army Reserve units were being mobilized to go to Iraq, she lobbied to join them.

"She called me at home," said her El Monte squad leader, Sgt. Frederick Moore, "and told me 'I need to go to Iraq.' " A week later, on Jan. 12, 2006, Spc. Stewart was deployed to Iraq.

"She loved the Army," Moore told her family. And she was loved by her fellow soldiers for her optimism, serenity in the face of danger and unflagging high spirits, he said.

She was "always first to help with the biggest of tasks and always greeted you with the biggest smile," Moore wrote in an e-mail read at Stewart's funeral.

In letters to her family after her death, Stewart's Army friends reminisced about her frantic search for coffee each morning, her futile effort to give up smoking -- "she kept bumming cigarettes from everyone" -- and her frequent shopping trips for health and beauty supplies. She was funny and straightforward, they said. She spoke her mind and listened to others. She never held a grudge.

"She was the kind of person able to get along with most everyone," wrote her roommate, Sgt. Anthea Duarte. "That says a lot about her, because in this military, and in this life, that's not an easy thing to do."

In Iraq, Stewart was assigned to transportation, responsible for delivering fuel, food, equipment and other supplies to combat forces. The sight of the tiny woman atop a giant Humvee became a familiar one.

"Spc. Stewart never complained," said her commander, Capt. William Bowman. "Whether she was working as a gunner or a driver, she did her job well and with a smile on her face. When others were down, she was there to lift them up."

Back home, her mother never stopped worrying. Tears would come unexpectedly when she was driving her car or sitting alone in the apartment.

"But I thought, 'So many soldiers go and they come back. You cannot cry, and nothing has happened. All I can do is pray,' " she said.

Her mood had begun to lighten last month as her daughter's expected return date neared. Then she got a phone message from her daughter's commander: Their tour of duty, which was to have ended in March, would be extended through the summer, he said.

Two days later, there was a knock at Aprahamian's door. That same commander was on her doorstep, delivering the news of her daughter's death. "When this happens," Aprahamian said, "I thought, 'Maybe I didn't pray enough.' "

Stewart was buried Feb. 10 at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Hollywood Hills, after a funeral at the Hall of Liberty that drew hundreds of friends, family members and fellow soldiers. There, her father paid a final tribute to his soldier daughter.

"She surprised the life out of me," said Edmond Babayan, who joined the Marine Corps after he immigrated to the United States at 18. "I thought I was the brave one in the family.... She turned out to be the brave, the tough, the best patriot of all of us.

"My little hero," he called her as he turned and faced his daughter's open casket. Then he said goodbye with a long salute and dropped to his knees.


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