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A 'really, really tender heart' is mourned

A Bakersfield pastor recalls the spirit of a sergeant slain in Iraq.

January 06, 2008|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

Friends remembered an Army sergeant from Bakersfield killed late last year by an Iraqi soldier as a spiritual man who was devoted to a group of close-knit friends and his wife of seven months.

Sgt. Benjamin Portell, 27, died Dec. 26, along with Capt. Rowdy Inman, 38, of Houston, from wounds suffered from small-arms fire after his unit was attacked while setting up a combat outpost near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

A pastor at the family's Bakersfield church said that when the military notified the family of Portell's death, it didn't initially say he was killed by an Iraqi soldier who had turned his gun on his U.S. counterparts in the joint operation. It was unclear Saturday how much detail had been provided to the parents, who were referring media requests to clergy at RiverLakes Community Church.

Portell, who was a few weeks into his second tour of duty in Iraq, was buried Friday at Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in Bakersfield. Earlier, about 500 well-wishers attended services at RiverLakes church.

"He was a very patriotic person," said Brian Murphy, executive pastor of RiverLakes.

He said Portell's brothers, Mike and Jeff, also served in the military.

His older brother, Mike, who has three months left on his current tour of duty in Iraq, flew home to attend the services, Murphy said. His younger brother, Jeff, was stationed in South Korea when he was in the service.

After receiving the news, Portell's father called his mother at work to tell her their son was killed in Iraq, leading her to ask, "Which one?" Murphy recalled.

Portell was assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based in Ft. Hood, Texas.

Friends said the barrel-chested Portell married his "soul mate," Michelle Moshier, last spring in Las Vegas. He met Moshier in the same city in April 2006.

The relationship led Portell to do "things he would never do while a bachelor -- he cooked, he cleaned, he took out the garbage, he vacuumed, all the while wearing that silly grin and saying, 'I love you,' " according to a paid obituary in the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union.

Portell backpacked often, and his family remembered an early trip in which his grandfather told Benjamin and brother Mike that they had to "eat the fish heads" off what they caught for dinner, according to the obituary, leading Benjamin to say, "I don't think so, Grandpa."

Benjamin Portell also traveled several times as part of a RiverLakes church youth group to help the poor in Mexico, where he delighted kids with puppet shows recounting Bible stories, Murphy said.

"Wherever Ben was, there was a group of people," he said. "He had a really, really tender heart."

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jennifer.oldham@latimes.com

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