Army Staff Sgt. Mark A. Stets Jr., 39, El Cajon; among 3 troops killed in bombing


For anyone who has thumbed through a military magazine or seen television commercials on the Sunday morning news programs, Army Staff Sgt. Mark A. Stets Jr. was the face of courage.

He was one of several soldiers who appeared in a recent Lockheed Martin Corp. advertising campaign, and sitting atop a rocket launcher in combat gear and camouflage, he is the portrait of determination.

His wife, Nina, would tease him when the commercial appeared, as it did in a Super Bowl broadcast a few years ago. But his family and friends said the idealized image of a dedicated, brave soldier was remarkably true to the real man.

“He was a wonderful man,” his wife said. “He was outgoing, intelligent, witty. He was the only person I’ve known in my life who everybody who knew him loved him.”

Stets, 39, of El Cajon, Calif., and Fayetteville, N.C., was killed Feb. 3 when a bomb exploded in a roadside attack that killed six other people, including two U.S. soldiers, in Timagara, Pakistan.

He was assigned to the 8th Psychological Operations Battalion, 4th Psychological Operations Group at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

Stets and the other soldiers had been serving in Pakistan near the Afghan border with a special operations team that was training Pakistan security forces in humanitarian and intelligence work and other counterinsurgency tactics, military officials said.

The soldiers were in Pakistan’s volatile northwest Lower Dir district to attend the inauguration of a girls’ school that had recently been renovated with U.S. assistance when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb.

Stets’ father, Mark Stets Sr. of Virginia Beach, Va., said his son had volunteered for the assignment, and in psychological operations, or “psyops,” had found a job for which he was totally suited.

The younger Stets was willing to grow a beard and wear civilian clothes to blend in with the local populace, and his sense of humor and outgoing personality won him quick friends.

“He had found a job that he liked and he knew what he could accomplish,” his father said. “He was very enthusiastic. When talking to him he would say, ‘You won’t believe where we’ve been and what we did.’ He was just enjoying what he was doing.”

Mark Stets Sr. said his son was one of the oldest men in his unit, which once prompted one of his son’s superiors to tease him, asking, “Weren’t you at the Last Supper?” He said his son replied, “Yes, but I think your mom was a waitress there.”

He said his son’s “your mom” jokes were famous in his unit and among family and friends.

After Stets’ death, some of his comrades honored him by making a plaque — with the words “Mom’s House” — for one of the places he had stayed in Pakistan.

Stets deployed to Pakistan in November but in his short time there had made many friends, including a former dean at Bahria University in Islamabad, whom he had met at a U.S. Embassy function, his father said.

Stets spent Christmas with the former dean, who, after the soldier’s death, held a memorial service that drew more than 60 people. Stets’ favorite Pakistani rock band, Qayaas, dedicated a performance to his memory the next night, his father said.

Mark Alan Stets was born Jan. 4, 1971, at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, but grew up mostly in Virginia Beach, where his father served in the Navy.

Stets grew up playing Army games with the neighborhood kids, but after he graduated from Cox High School, his father persuaded him to give the Navy a try.

He enlisted in 1989 and was assigned to San Diego, where he served as a gunner’s mate on the now-decommissioned tank landing ship Frederick.

Stets left the Navy in 1993 and joined the California Army National Guard, where he was deployed to assist in the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

He joined the Army in 1995 as an artilleryman, trained as a paratrooper and served in Korea and Kuwait, among other assignments. The Persian Gulf War veteran also studied Korean and Russian at the Defense Language Institute’s Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif. He later studied Arabic as well.

Stets transferred to Ft. Bragg in 1996. He was on a team that was among the first to use a new prototype rocket launcher, and when the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, was looking for personnel to use in its advertising, he was chosen, his wife said.

After Stets’ death, Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Bob Stevens sent a condolence letter to the family.

“Staff Sergeant Stets genuinely represented the courageous men and women we at Lockheed Martin work so hard to support,” Stevens wrote. “In his face, we saw strength of character, love of country and steely resolve — qualities we associate with America’s finest. Staff sergeant Stets certainly stood tall among them.”

Stets was buried May 14 at Arlington National Cemetery.

In addition to his wife and father, he is survived by his daughters, December, Jessica and Rachael; and his mother, Nancy.