Army Sgt. Derek T. Roberts was planning to get married in Hawaii as soon as his tour of duty in Iraq ended.
The thoughtful, easygoing Californian joined the Army in 2003 because he wanted to travel beyond his hometown of Gold River, near Sacramento, and do something with his life, said his fiancee, Judi Arel.
After serving one tour of duty in Afghanistan, he was stationed in Hawaii, where he met Arel, a preschool teacher. He left for Iraq last summer.
His contract with the Army expired in January, but like other enlistees sent to Iraq, he was required to remain until his unit’s deployment ended.
Roberts, 24, and Arel, 22, decided they would get married at the beach in Hawaii after his 15-month tour in Iraq ended, most likely in October.
But June 14, Roberts and two soldiers serving with him were killed when a roadside bomb exploded near their Humvee in the northern city of Kirkuk. Also killed in the blast were Spc. Val J. Borm, 21, of Sidney, Neb., and Spc. Farid Elazzouzi, 26, of Paterson, N.J. All three were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Infantry Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
Instead of getting married in Hawaii, Roberts was buried there July 2 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The historic cemetery is also known as the Punchbowl, because it rests in the crater of an extinct volcano.
Roberts’ family decided to bury him in Hawaii because it was where he was last stationed and where he had shared his life with Arel. “Derek and I really loved living in Hawaii,” she said.
While Roberts was in Iraq, Arel said, they talked often. But he didn’t tell her much about what was happening there, because he didn’t want to worry her.
“We just tried to focus on our regular life,” said Arel, who had been living with Roberts’ parents, Dennis and Wylene, in Gold River while he was in Iraq. “He was ready to come home. He was ready to move forward with his life. But he understood he had to be there.”
Arel knew that his first priority was keeping his fellow soldiers from harm, and she believes that he would have put himself in danger to protect them.
“His most important goal was to make sure that he and his Army family could come home,” she said. “He always stood up for them and tired to protect them because he was their leader.”
During his deployment, Arel said, Roberts lost whatever enthusiasm he once had for the U.S. mission in Iraq.
“He was over it,” she said.
Arel said she also has had enough of the killing in Iraq. Another friend recently died in the fighting, she said, leaving behind his 20-year-old fiancee.
“I am ready for it to be over,” she said. “I just lost my whole life for it. Enough people have died for it.”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria, issued a statement honoring Roberts.
“California has suffered a great loss with the death of Sgt. Derek Roberts, and Maria and I humbly pay tribute to the great sacrifice he made for our nation,” the statement said. “Our hearts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Derek.”
Roberts received numerous honors, including the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Combat Infantry Badge.
The sergeant’s grandmother Peg Roberts of Neskowin, Ore., said the family was grieving but knew they would be rejoined with Derek in heaven. “We feel that our families are eternal,” she said. “He’s been called home by his heavenly father.”
In addition to his fiancee, parents and grandmother, Roberts is survived by grandparents Snowden Roberts of Neskowin and Sandra Chandler of Roseville, Calif.; and a brother, Trevor, and sister-in-law, Christine, of Provo, Utah.