by SEAN KIMMONS
A solemn bell rang on top of a hill as mourners gathered inside San Marcos Baptist Academy’s theater Thursday night. After graduating almost 10 years ago, Capt. Paul Peña had returned to his alma mater. This time in a U.S. flag draped casket.
Peña, 27, and another soldier were killed by a roadside bomb Jan. 19 while on foot patrol searching for a weapons cache in the volatile Kandahar province. Five others were injured in the blast.
“I don’t think it’s really quite hit yet,” said Capt. Allan Gryskewicz, a friend who was deployed with Peña and traveled back for the service. “It’s kind of a shock.”
That fateful day, Peña, the commander of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, volunteered to go on patrol with one of his platoons.
Once the blast occurred, Gryskewicz, who was overseeing the mission, jumped on the radio to coordinate air support and a medical evacuation for Peña and the others.
“They were going to a meeting with local villagers,” he said. “It was nothing out of the ordinary, just a routine mission.”
Looking past the incident, Gryskewicz said that his friend was a jokester at heart.
“He was business at work but he’d crack one-liners here and there,” he said.
Staff Sgt. Ian Combs knew that Peña very well as he addressed the crowd. He recalled playing pranks on him and vice versa.
“Paul was a joker,” he said. “We never stopped joking around.”
One day, Combs said that he had the pleasure of meeting Peña’s family.
“It was funny to see him with his mom,” he said. “You saw him turn into a little boy again.”
Combs said that Peña got humiliated when his mother pulled out old photo albums of him.
“He would be embarrassed, but I’d keep asking for more,” he said as the crowd laughed. “It drove him crazy.”
Combs deployed with Peña to Iraq for 13 months and spoke of his confidence while under enemy fire.
“We went through a lot together,” he said. “No matter how bad it got, he’d always look at you and smile.”
When he helped escort Peña’s body from San Antonio to San Marcos, Combs recalled how impressed he was to see the amount of supporters along the drive on Jan. 26.
“It never stopped,” he said of the supporters. “That was incredible. I had never seen anything like that.”
“It meant so much to his family,” he added of how people lined the streets, held flags on overpasses and got out of vehicles with their hand on their heart when the motorcade passed by.
The enormous support seemed to fit the type of leader that Peña was known to be. Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, XVIII Airborne Corps commander, reminded mourners of his dedication.
“People have asked whether Paul had to be out there that day,” he said. “The answer that Paul’s battalion commander gave was this, ‘Paul knew exactly where he needed to be – out in front with his paratroopers, leading them through the same dangers that they face.”’
“That’s what Paul was – an extraordinary leader,” he added.
Peña’s funeral procession is slated to begin at 10 a.m. Friday at St. John’s the Evangelist Church, 128 S. Audubon Drive in San Antonio. Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. with Father Stuart Juleen officiating followed by interment at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.Email | Print